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It’s all in the season’s start

Steve Mickey

Steve Mickey

Even though only six races have been completed from the Sprint Cup schedule, for some teams the open weekend of racing couldn’t have come at a better time.

The schedule still shows 30 more races, but if you are one of the teams that dreams of making it into the Chase, the schedule is not as long. Only 20 races remain before the field is set for the opportunity to run for the title.

Just like in previous seasons, there are already those teams that have gotten off to great starts and have already put themselves in contention to make the Chase field. We found out last year that you don’t necessarily have to win a bunch of races before the Chase starts to get into the field, but it sure makes for a better ending if you are able to win a bunch once those 10 Chase races begin to go off the board.

Tony Stewart claimed his third Sprint Cup championship using that formula last season. When the Chase started, Stewart said he wasn’t sure that he really even belonged in the Chase field after going winless over the first 26 races of the season leading up to the championship round of 10 races. All of that changed once the Chase got underway, as Stewart won immediately in the first race on his way to winning five of the last 10 races.

Stewart remains as hot as any driver in the sport, as he leads the 2012 series with two wins that now have him sitting in third place in the standings, 12 points behind leader Greg Biffle. A closer look at the standings show you just how important those two wins are already to the defending champion as he is actually tied with Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. for the third spot, but the first tie-breaker that NASCAR uses to determines places in the standings is the number of wins that a driver has accumulated on the season. Kenseth does have a win in the season- opening Daytona 500 that gives him the fourth spot, further showing the importance of making a trip to victory lane.

Biffle and second-place driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. are yet to grab a checkered flag, but still lead the rest of the field including all of those other drivers that have a won a race — Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman. Biffle and Earnhardt Jr. sit at the top of the standings because even after the point system was overhauled before the start of last season, the sanctioning body still rewards consistency in the sport. Both drivers, even though they are winless on the season, have three top 5 and four top 10 finishes.

I admit it is early to really start taking a look at the standings and try to put a tag on a driver as already punching his ticket to the Chase, especially when there are only 37 points separating Biffle at the top and Johnson in the 10th spot. That is not a lot of points as an early exit at any race can lose you that many points. Being in the top 10 when the schedule returns this weekend at Texas produces less pressure than those so-called favorites who now find themselves out of the Chase hunt and being forced to play catch up in a series that is so competitive.

The top 10 in points automatically qualifies for the Chase after the 26th race of the season in Richmond, but there are two wild card spots that reward drivers finishing in the top 20 with the most wins. Keselowski was one of those drivers that took advantage of that avenue and gained entry into the field with two wins last season, but there is no guarantee on how many wins it may take at this point to determine the wild card drivers.

Is it too early for a team and a driver to start approaching each race with the mentality that we have to start stockpiling some wins in order to make it into the Chase? That can only be answered on an individual basis but there are some teams that may show up at Texas with that line of thinking. Jeff Gordon (21st), Jamie McMurray (24th) and Kurt Busch (26th) have gotten off to the kind of starts that may now have them chasing the checkers each week. It’s a tough call to make with April just starting, but one thing is for sure — winning cures a lot of problems.

Race Preview
Event: Samsung Mobile 500
Track: Texas Motor Speedway
(1.5-mile oval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns)
Date: April 14, 7:30 p.m.
Radio: PRN
Defending Champion: Matt

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