Coming into the first race of the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Tony Stewart was one of only two drivers to make the playoffs and fail to win a race during the regular season.
So much for that.
Smoke's first victory of the year came earlier today, as the Geico 400, postponed from yesterday due to rain, shook up the playoff seeding quite a bit. Multiple Chase contenders ran out of fuel at the very end of the event, reminding everyone that it doesn't matter how well you drive in the race's first 399 miles, it's where you end up in the 400th.
Without further ado, the top 15 drivers in Cup points:
Despite having to claw his way through the field from the 30th starting spot and issues with Kurt Busch on pit road, Happy got the last laugh on the field with a second-place finish earlier today. The 42 points he scored were more than enough to give him a solid, if not spectacular, gap on the rest of the Chase field.
Stewart discovered this weekend that there are two great cures for a migraine like the one he had on Sunday: a rain delay and a victory. He jumped seven spots in the points with his victory and may be poised to fill the traditional Chase archetype of "regular season underachiever who turns it on in the final 10 races."
Edwards started fifth and finished fourth, running in the top 15 all day. It's that sort of consistency that will put him in position to win his first Sprint Cup, if he can only keep it up.
Busch was actually pretty steamed on his in-car radio towards the end of the race, frustrated that the top cars in the field were able to pull away from him. His whining has gotten old and tired in the past few weeks, especially after Richmond's fits, leaving some to wonder whether the act will begin to break down his team or remain a motivator.
Junior consistently worked his way through the field all day, turning a 19th place start into a third place finish and a five spot jump in the points. While he is now the only driver left in the Chase not to have scored a victory, his recent performance (and consistency since the start of the year) suggest that a win can't be too far off... can it?
Unlike teammate Kurt Busch, Keselowski patiently worked his way back through the field when he fell to 20th place in the final 60 laps. His perseverance and hard work paid off with a fifth place finish. Unfortunately for Keselowski, his wild card spot plucked nine potential bonus points off his total, which would have put him second in points right now, only five off of Kevin Harvick's lead in the "Battle of the Beers."
A consistent top-10 driver throughout the race, Newman fell to eighth at the end of the event as one of the drivers a bit short on fuel. However, the consistency shown by both Stewart-Haas cars (teammate and owner Tony Stewart won the race) suggests that at least one of the two will challenge for this year's championship.
Unfortunately for Jimmie Johnson haters, the No. 48 team has overcome worse things than running out of gas in the first race of the Chase. In the end, Johnson still coasted to a 10th place finish. It could have been much worse, and it's going to take a lot more to stop them.
Busch certainly wasn't smiling at the end of the race, which saw him run out of gas with two laps to go, fall a lap down and finish 22nd. Rowdy thus dropped eight spots in points, suggesting another Chase collapse akin to his devastating 2008 performance.
Kenseth was another driver to run out of gas on the final lap of today's race. J.J. Yeley's push across the finish line on the last lap made that miscalculation especially costly; an assist on the final lap is a no-no, leading NASCAR to classify Kenseth 21st, the first driver off the lead lap. He dropped six spots in points.
So much for the third seed in the Chase. Gordon couldn't even break the top 10 earlier today, finishing a disappointing two laps down in 24th. That caused him to plummet eight spots in points, falling outside of a seat at the season-ending Sprint Cup banquet.
Like most teams to lose at the very end of the previous season's playoffs, 2011 is just not Hamlin's year. He plummeted as low as 37th earlier today and finished three laps down in 31st after multiple issues.
At this point, what's more interesting is where Bowyer will end up driving next season. He supposedly has 20 races in the bag with 5-Hour Energy as a sponsor and may take them to Michael Waltrip Racing. So far Richard Childress has not found a sponsor to replace Cheerios as the primary on the No. 33 car.
Allmendinger had an unsuccessful day, finishing 27th and losing a spot in the standings. He's now eight points behind Clint Bowyer for the top driver not in the Chase.
Biffle's seventh place start didn't amount to anything in the end, as he dropped deep into the field about a third of the way in the race. Eventually he wound up 26th, two laps down.