NASCAR moves into its "real season"
by Mike Neff
Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500, but that doesn’t mean he’s the early favorite to win the Sprint Cup championship. Listening to talking heads from ESPN to Bob’s Big Boy, Bayne is not only poised to win every race this season, but he very well could be the next Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon all rolled into one squeaky-clean driving machine. The Sprint Cup Series has the longest season in professional sports and if history has taught us anything over the last 30 years, it’s that the winner of the Daytona 500 is about as far from a lock to win the championship as it can get.
Gordon and Johnson are the only champions in the last three decades to win Daytona and also take home the title. For the most part, the 500 has been a curse more than a blessing, particularly over the last few years. Since Johnson’s win in 2006, only Kevin Harvick has parlayed a Daytona 500 win into a Chase berth — and even then he finished 10th in the 2007 standings, while failing to visit Victory Lane again that season.
Bayne has wisely decided to stick with the original plan for the 2011 season: running a full Nationwide schedule and competing in around 20 Cup Series races for the Wood Brothers. Bayne is still only 20 years old and has only competed in 51 Nationwide races to go with two Cup starts. The experience he’ll gain running for a title in NASCAR’s Triple-A division will go a long way in preparing him to run a full-time Cup schedule in the future.
So since Bayne isn’t going to run away with the Cup Series this year, the question turns to what can be made of the rest of the field, and who is going to claim the title in 2011? Only three drivers who were in the Chase last year managed to finish in the top 10 of the Daytona 500, while six drivers finished 27th or worse — including Johnson and Harvick.
The retooled points system penalizes bad days more than it rewards good ones, with a greater disparity between a first-place finish and last on a percentage basis. The old point system paid 190 for winning a race and 34 points for finishing last, or 17 percent of the winner’s total. The new system gives first place 43 points and last place one, which is only two percent of the winner’s points. Therefore, a couple of finishes in the bottom three or four spots make the climb to Chase contention extremely difficult.
With Bayne’s decision to run for the Nationwide title this year, Carl Edwards is the points leader at this juncture, with 42 points to his credit. Conversely, Harvick blew up early in the 500 and came home 42nd which, by virtue of leading a lap, means he earned only three championship points. In order for Harvick to catch Edwards he’ll have to finish a spot in front of him in every race between now and the Chase while leading laps in half of them without Edwards leading any. That may not be too big of a hill to climb, but should Harvick have another dismal finish at Phoenix, he’ll face a very difficult task to make it back to the top of the mountain.
Harvick isn’t the only driver with a tough row to hoe. Johnson, Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle are all outside the top 20 in points. Mind you, these drivers were in the playoffs last season, and the majority will be there once again, but disappointing seasons have happened before, making the pressure to avoid another bad finish high. And with a new, unfamiliar points system, there are bound to be some wrinkles as the year unfolds.
The best thing about putting Daytona to bed and heading to Phoenix is that the drivers feel they control their own destiny. Restrictor plate tracks are a crapshoot where ending the day wadded up is just as likely as going to Victory Lane. It’s a good bet that most of last season’s Chase participants who had serious trouble at Daytona will begin their climb back towards the top. However, they may not be able to catch Edwards. Don’t forget the Daytona runner-up was the first to cross the finish line at Phoenix last fall before he went to Homestead and notched a second-straight win to cap the season. His performance earned him the praise of the media during the offseason — he’s the trendy pick to knock Johnson off his championship perch — while signifying the return of the Blue Oval gang after an extended slump.
There is so much excitement leading up to the Daytona 500 and once the race ends, that energy can cloud fans’ and media members’ judgment about the rest of the season. Sure, it’s exciting to see a legendary racing team visit Victory Lane for the first time in nearly 10 years, and with a humble young driver in his second Cup start, to boot. However, his trip into the Phoenix wall in Friday’s first practice session was a jolt of reality.
It is just as easy to see perennial Chasers stumble out of the blocks and wonder whether they’ll be able to contend for the title. Just remember that Daytona is a plate race and anything can happen. Now that the schedule turns to Phoenix we’ll get a little better idea of who improved over the winter and who is bound to take a step back.