5 NASCAR Drivers Riding a Big Momentum Wave Early in 2013
Is two races into a 36-race schedule enough time to determine whether or not a Sprint Cup driver has any significant momentum?
Sure, there are plenty of arguments against it. The new Gen Six car hasn't raced on any of the 1.5-mile ovals that make up the majority of the schedule, nor has it had its first race action on a short track. Only one driver—Jimmie Johnson in 2006—has parlayed a Daytona 500 victory into a championship in the Chase era, and only one driver to win the second race of the season has won a title in that era as well. (You guessed it—Johnson again, this time in 2010.)
But these five drivers would like to disagree. If all goes according to plan for them, strong starts to the season are just foreshadowing a great year. They're thinking race victories in the short term, and in most cases, even a Chase berth down the road. Don't be shocked if any of them pull it off based on their early results, which have either shown winning capability or calm consistency.
It's hard to top finishes of first and second in the first two races of the season, and that's exactly what Johnson has done so far. He had an opportunity to win two consecutive races at Phoenix on Sunday, but Carl Edwards managed to get a better jump on the green-white-checkered restart to defend his lead.
But perhaps it's ill-advised to nitpick there. Johnson still heads into Las Vegas with an eight-point lead in the standings and his second Daytona 500 victory only two weeks behind him. The last time Johnson won the season opener and finished second in the next race, it began a run of five consecutive titles. Be afraid—be very afraid.
How can a guy who got caught up in five accidents during preseason testing and Daytona Speedweeks be riding a momentum wave? First of all, a win at Phoenix to snap a 70-race winless drought helps, and Edwards managed to do that on Sunday.
But second of all—and perhaps more importantly—when Edwards wins in the early stages of a season, it usually indicates that he'll contend for a championship. He's won before the fifth race on the schedule four times (2005, 2008, 2011 and now 2013); he came home third in 2005, second in 2008 and lost a tiebreaker for the championship in 2011.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Here's the truth about the start of Earnhardt Jr.'s season: he's two errors away from two victories to start the season. Had he gone for the point about a lap earlier in the Daytona 500, he'd have had something for Jimmie Johnson, and had he been able to avoid Casey Mears on pit road, he'd have won in Phoenix.
That being said, he's still second in points, only eight behind leader Johnson. He also earned two top-five finishes to start the season—something he hasn't done since 2004, when he won a career-high six races. Could that be a good omen?
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
His high-profile girlfriend may be the one getting all the attention, but Stenhouse is now outranking Danica Patrick in points. Finishes of 12th and 16th have him tied for eighth in points through two races, and he hasn't put a wheel significantly out of line on race day so far this year.
Look for the momentum to continue to pick up. In his second consecutive championship-winning Nationwide campaign last year, Stenhouse won races in both Las Vegas and Texas; in fact, from Phoenix in March to Darlington in May, he never finished worse than sixth in nine starts.
The next stretch of the schedule should be a good one for the rookie, and a chance to prove that he can truly replace Matt Kenseth in the No. 17 car.
Almirola ended last season, his first full Sprint Cup schedule, with four consecutive finishes of 16th or better, and could've made it five had he not crashed out of a Kansas race where he led 69 laps. This year, he's carrying the momentum with two more top-15 finishes, putting him in a three-way tie for eighth in points with Stenhouse Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
It may be a bit of karma, if you believe in it. Not only is STP returning once again to the hood of the famed No. 43, but primary sponsor Smithfield and its brands have also ditched their primary colors for Petty blue this season. A Chase berth may still be out of reach for Richard Petty Motorsports, but if the past few months have been any indication, Almirola may be getting them to the doorstep.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.