The big NASCAR story is Dale Earnhardt Jr. backing up his Daytona win with a second-place finish in Phoenix. Another story is that Brad Keselowski has battled up front already for two races in 2014 and looks to be the contender he was in 2012.
Not much farther back are Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick. Gordon hasn’t started a season with two top-five finishes in many years. Harvick started his tenure at Stewart-Haas Racing with a big win in the fresh season.
Tony Stewart has hinted in the past that the first five NASCAR Sprint Cup races don’t determine the real grit of the championship quest, but that has changed now. Drivers need wins for the new elimination Chase format, and getting a win early is a boost.
Harvick moved into that special win club that Earnhardt joined at Daytona, and it could bode well for him in his new SHR ride.
Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, continues to apply machine-like results with No. 48 team precision to the new qualifying and elimination changes that NASCAR has put in place to award those who nab the checkered flag.
A preview of what the action at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will bring is made cogent by recent comments about the March 9 Kobalt Tools 400 by the point leaders—Earnhardt Jr., Keselowski, Gordon, Harvick and Johnson.
Earnhardt has been smiling since Daytona after overcoming a long win drought.
“Confidence is everything,” Earnhardt said. “When you go to Vegas, If you run well, you expect to go to the next mile-and-a-half and run well.”
Sometimes, fans and especially critics overlook that Earnhardt and his team had 10 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes in 2013.
“We just got a lot of momentum carried over from last year,” he said. “We were running well in the Chase. I think the Chase performance we had got us pretty excited, real happy to look forward to this season.”
Happy Harvick has many reasons to be joyous moving to Stewart-Haas Racing and securing an important Phoenix win early for the 2014 season.
“This is a hard sport,” Harvick said. “It's hard to win. You need to celebrate every win like it's your last one because you never know when it might be your last one.”
A new team often presents extra challenges, but already, Harvick’s new team built the fastest car in the garage for Phoenix.
“Everybody is still trying to learn each other's names let alone what's going on with the race car,” Harvick said. “It's a different atmosphere for me. The enthusiasm is through the roof.”
Keselowski is in need of a win like almost all NSCS drivers right now, but he is confident.
“Our team has come out strong in the first couple of races,” he said. “We just have to get that last little bit in order to win races. We will continue working with winning in mind in order to position ourselves to be in the new championship playoff format.”
Meanwhile, Gordon shared his thoughts on the specifics of the fast LVMS track.
"The challenges we will face at Vegas are the same we have faced.” Gordon said. “We're up against the loads at speed but also trying to get over these bumps. That's very challenging. You can run up high, but then usually your left-side tires are on them.”
Johnson, as always, looks to gain an edge by fast work and feedback.
“We are looking forward to the opportunity for the extra test day in Vegas,” Johnson said. “With all the rule changes, we really need that time on these types of tracks to figure some things out. “
Earnhardt is thrilled to be an early winner, but he is smart to stay grounded.
“It's hard to take away a lot from two races,” he said. “Such a long season, so many things can happen. The competition gets tougher and tougher throughout the year as everybody starts seeing what is happening in the garage. Secrets don't last long.”
The reality that NASCAR seasons last long but that NASCAR secrets don’t should bolster a productive group of drivers and teams heading into the new elimination playoffs.
But first drivers and teams must head into Las Vegas.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Unless otherwise noted, information and all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official release materials provided by sanction and team representatives.