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AVONDALE, Ariz. -- NASCAR whipped fans into a frenzy over the offseason with changes to Sprint Cup cars, new qualifying rules and a total revamp of the Chase for the Sprint Cup into an elimination-style playoff.
Then its most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., scored a satisfying victory at the Daytona 500 season opener, with the drama in NASCAR's biggest race of the season prolonged and intensified by a lengthy rain delay.
Well, it's time for Sprint Cup teams and drivers to ease into the grind of the "regular season" -- 25 points races in the next 28 weeks, starting with Sunday's The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
NASCAR is the only sporting organization in the world that starts its competition year with its most prestigious and important event. By itself, that creates a natural post-Daytona letdown for competitors and the fan base.
You could argue that, by effectively locking himself into the Chase with his Daytona victory, Earnhardt, the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team and Junior Nation just need to mark time for the next six months until the new-look playoffs start.
But Earnhardt insists that there will be no Daytona hangover and that he and crew chief Steve Letarte won't relax as Junior chases his first Sprint Cup championship. Earnhardt, a two-time Phoenix winner, qualified fifth for Sunday's race.
"I feel like I shouldn't have any problem getting out there on the racetrack and doing the best I can do," he said. "I've been doing this a long time and have had the opportunity to win races and get back the next weekend and do well. It should be no problem."
|Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows he and his team have room to experiment because they are already a virtual lock in the Chase.|
On Friday, Jimmie Johnson talked about how observant his Hendrick teammate Earnhardt is. For his part, Earnhardt owned up to closely watching Johnson and the No. 48 team in their amazing run of six Sprint Cup championships in the past eight years and said he and Letarte can already start to focus on a championship run of their own.
"I've really seen what goes on behind closed doors," Earnhardt said. "When they get comfortable that they are in the Chase, they really start to experiment or try to find things outside of their comfort zone that can help them during the Chase. We can start thinking about that earlier than most people. You might see things in the middle of the race where we might do some strategy where we take two tires more often, instead of four tires, to get the track position and see how the car handles and see if we can hold it until the next opportunity to put four tires on it. Maybe try things earlier in the race to sort of set us up that we probably wouldn't do if we were trying to get points.
"Points aren't quite as important, I guess, as wins, so things might change a little bit."
Johnson, who qualified immediately in front of Earnhardt at Phoenix in fourth place, revealed that he and crew chief Chad Knaus are already taking the long view toward a possible seventh Cup title. Johnson is a four-time winner at Phoenix, and a win for him Sunday would all but lock two of Rick Hendrick's four drivers into the postseason. It also would affect his team's plans and preparations for the Chase, even though it's six months away.
"Ideally, if all four [Hendrick] drivers win a race, we can just sit on our test sessions and know that we are in that first block," Johnson said. "That's really the objective I think for all the teams. Ideally, yes, let's save our test sessions until as deep in the Chase as we can. If we're behind, we'll have to burn some of those sessions to catch up."
Meanwhile, many observers believe the man to beat this weekend at Phoenix is Kevin Harvick. The Stewart-Haas Racing pilot qualified only 13th (missing out on the 12-driver pole shootout by a thousandth of a second), but several drivers, including Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing, noticed how well Harvick's No. 4 Chevrolet was handling in Friday practice.
Harvick emphasized that potential by setting the fastest lap in the Saturday morning practice, along with the quickest 5- and 10-lap runs, then running P1 in the afternoon practice, as well.
Harvick is facing the challenge of learning the ropes at a new team this year in addition to coping with all of the other changes NASCAR has introduced for 2014.
"Not only is it a new team, the way that you look at things and the way you go about things is so drastically different than what you ran last year, that we're looking for that baseline to be able to understand exactly what we need and where to work from," Harvick said. "In that same sense, things will evolve really fast because things are quite a bit different. You'll have something that will evolve into something new by the time you get to the next week."
Harvick agrees that capturing a win early in the season to lock into the Chase will somewhat change a team's approach heading toward the Chase.
"You have to keep the mindset that you still have to finish the races, but as you get in that position, you can start being a lot more aggressive with really anything," he said. "Car setups, fuel strategy, race strategy -- you can take a lot of chances, and then really, all you're after at that point is winning races to try to gain more bonus points to protect yourself in the first round of the Chase to get the cushion."
At shorter tracks such as Phoenix, where track position is of critical importance, mastering the new qualifying system could provide a driver and team with a big advantage. Perhaps it's not surprising that Team Penske, with years of experience in IndyCar Series qualifying shootouts, locked up the front row with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
|Celebrating winning the pole with Miss Coors Light Rachel Rupert is great, but it's all about winning races in 2014, and Brad Keselowski knows it.|
"Oh yeah, Roger was all over that one -- he loves it," said pole man Keselowski. "He provided his feedback, which was great, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. At the end of the day, stock cars and Indy cars are drastically different, but the formats are very similar. The variable of alternate tire compounds in IndyCar kind of throws a little hitch in being able to carbon copy anything from over there, but I am sure there will be small things we will push for to be able to go back and forth."
With 26 races spread over more than half the calendar year, it's natural to call the NASCAR regular season a marathon. But in truth, it's a series of 26 sprints, all with equal value in terms of the championship picture.
NASCAR's new "Win and you're in" mentality gives the old cliché "any given Sunday" a whole new meaning. One really good day can completely turn around a really bad season.
Races at Phoenix, Las Vegas, Texas or Watkins Glen don't carry the prestige of the Daytona 500, but they do count every bit as much when it comes to getting drivers into the Chase or improving their position once they qualify.
The shock and novelty of this year's changes will fade as the season advances, but the goal remains the same: a berth in the Chase and a chance to compete for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Who is going to join Dale Jr. in this year's Chase field? Lots of time to answer that question, but, by Sunday evening, one more team and driver might be in position to alter their long-term planning for the rest of the 2014 campaign.