DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 22: Jeff Gordon straps into the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 22, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season truly kicks off this weekend at Phoenix, as drivers and teams turn their attention towards accumulating victories and points in their pursuit of making the Chase for the championship. Defending Subway Fresh Fit 500 champion Jeff Gordon has a long way to go after his dislmal Daytona 500 result.
Fresh off a wild and wet Speedweeks, Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth and the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams head to the Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, AZ, for this weekend's Subway Fresh Fit 500. That western air will likely allow the waterlogged competitors to dry out nicely as the 2012 NASCAR season truly kicks off and teams turn their attention from winning our sport's biggest race to accumulating victories and points in hopes of making this year's Chase for the Championship.
One driver needing a major rebound after Monday evening/Tuesday morning's Great American Race is defending Subway Fresh Fit 500 winner Jeff Gordon. A blown engine just past the 80 lap mark left him with a disappointing 40th-place finish in Daytona. He sits 42 points back of Kenseth, but more importantly he is 30 points behind tenth-placed Mark Martin. There are 25 races left for Gordon to get back up to the Chase, but he certainly didn't need to be in such a hole so early.
Teammate Jimmie Johnson, who crashed just past the completion of lap one and equalled his career-worst finish of 42nd, is in a similar situation. He sits 33 points out of tenth. Working in the favor of both Hendrick drivers are the two "wild-card" entries for drivers between 11th and 20th in points with the most victories. Gordon and Johnson each figure to visit victory lane at least once if not multiple times in the "regular season" and should be well-positioned even if they can't crack the top-10 by Richmond in September.
Other drivers with miserable finishes in Daytona that need to get back on track and do so quickly are Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya (likely already a lock for headline of the year for his jet dryer incident), and Kurt Busch. Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch, each expected to challenge for their first triumphs in the 500, were largely non-factors and finished 16th and 17th. They aren't in quite a big hole points-wise, but after the disappointment of Daytona, both will likely be looking for strong performances this weekend to get their season rolling.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who came within one spot of ending his now 130-race winless drought, and third-place Greg Biffle, who missed the 2011 Chase and hasn't won since September 2010. Jeff Burton blew an engine in last year's 500 and suffered through a miserable season, so his fifth-place finish (after not recording a top-five in 2011 until he placed second at Talladega in October) is a very nice turnaround. Paul Menard and Joey Logano highlight the other drivers in the top-10 who will be looking to try to hold on.
As for drivers like Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, and Carl Edwards, all of whom contended for the title last season, they are off to a fine start as expected and should have little trouble holding onto their top-10 positions as the season moves on.
The 312-lap, 500-kilometer duel in the desert should provide more points jostling, as it will be early spring before the Chase picture begins to show any level of clarity.