After just two races, the 2012 Sprint Cup season has already provided wildly varying results for its superstar participants. Some have recorded strong finishes at both Daytona and Phoenix, some had one good race and one not so good race, some have had a pair of decent but not spectacular finishes, some have been mid-pack both races, and some have had two miserable results.
Phoenix winner Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, and Kevin Harvick all head to this weekend's Kobalt Tools 500 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with a pair of great runs in their pocket and solid points positions. Martin Truex Jr., Mark Martin, and Joey Logano have also been solid in both events run thus far. Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth had a 13th-place run at Phoenix, respectable if not satisfying for a title-contending team, while 500 runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. was one spot behind Kenseth again, this time in 14th.
Some drivers who had miserable showings in Daytona came back strong at Phoenix. Jimmie Johnson was dominant for most of the day and seemed a certain winner before a vibration forced him to pit road and dropped him outside the top-20. He still recovered to finish fourth and climb into positive points territory. One spot behind Johnson was Brad Keselowski, who wrecked late at Daytona. Jeff Gordon recovered from his engine failure in the 500 to finish eighth, and Juan Pablo Montoya avoided all jet dryers in the desert to finish 11th.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Clint Bowyer had a solid Daytona 500 but suffered two blown right front tires early at Phoenix and placed a miserable 30th. Jeff Burton was in line for his second-straight top-10 of the season when his engine blew late in the going, and a similar fate befell Marcos Ambrose who placed 13th in the 500. Paul Menard, Harvick and Burton's Richard Childress Racing teammate, also had a great Daytona run but was involved in an early accident at Phoenix and finished deep in the field.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart was a disappointing 16th in the 500 after headlining much of the pre-race discussion. He was in line for a much better result at Phoenix before one of his old fuel-saving tricks failed him. He shut off the engine, but was unable to get it refired and lost two laps, finishing 22nd. The man who tied him in points last season, Carl Edwards, had a decent if unspectacular Daytona 500 and ran out of gas late at Phoenix, finishing 17th.
The drivers in the worst position heading to Vegas are those who have opened the season with two-straight down performances. Kasey Kahne was expected to light the world on fire right out of the box in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports, but he crashed in both events and finished 29th and 34th, respectively. Jamie McMurray's downfall from a dream 2010 season has continued, as he wrecked out of the 500 late (after suffering the same mechanical failure that sent teammate Montoya into the jet dryer) and crashed before blowing an engine at Phoenix. They, along with Johnson pending the outcome of his team's appeal of their Daytona penalties, find themselves deep in the standings and can scarcely afford any more bad positions if they hope to make this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup title and race for the championship.
With the fortunes so wildly mixed, it's only fitting this weekend's race carries the teams to Sin City, where Lady Luck can make or break you. Just ask Stewart, who dominated last year's race but was felled when his rear tire changer's air hose wrapped around the quarter-panel of his Chevy, a fluke incident that forced him back to pit road to serve a penalty and led to a runner-up finish that gave Edwards his lone win of 2011.