It doesn't take long for the pretenders to be separated from the contenders in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Sometimes, through bad luck or mediocre performance, a driver leaves the Chase opener sentenced to an also-ran status for the remainder of the season. This season may be an anomaly — the field is too stacked to start crossing names off the list of legitimate title contenders.
That could be good news for Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon, who each had mechanical problems in the Chicago opener. Kenseth had a shock fall off his car, Gordon crashed after his throttle stuck and the two head to Round 2 of the Chase in New Hampshire ranked 11th and 12th in the standings.
"I think even Jeff Gordon, even though he had a disappointing finish, he still can't count himself out," said defending champion Tony Stewart. "Everybody can have a bad race, so it's way too early to predict after one race."
There's usually room for a mulligan in the Chase: Stewart limped to a 25th-place finish last year in Round 3 at Dover and still won the title. Jimmie Johnson overcame not only a 39th-place finish in the 2006 Chase opener, but also a crash at Talladega. An early crash at Texas in 2009 led to a 38th-place finish, and he still won his fourth title. And in 2010, he opened with a 25th-place finish and rallied over the remaining nine weeks for his fifth-straight championship.
So nobody is expecting the champion to have a flawless 10-race run.
"You're probably going to see guys having a little bit of trouble here and there," said Greg Biffle. "I think with this field, people are going to be climbing back in this game because other guys may have trouble or may have a mediocre race and a guy wins. I think there will probably be more guys in it for a longer period of time in this Chase."
Those at the bottom of the standings have no time to waste.
"If those same guys continue to have trouble, that might start eliminating a few," said Biffle, who counts himself among those needing a strong rebound this Sunday at New Hampshire.
He was the points leader at the end of the "regular season" but opened the Chase in fifth after the field was re-seeded based on bonus points. He figured a strong race at Chicago would push him back into the points lead, but he struggled all weekend and had to settle for a 13th-place finish. It cost Biffle another three spots in the standings.
"It was an unfortunate race for us. We felt like we were going to be on the money there and we just ended up off a little bit," he said. "It's a very, very tight points battle going on right now, so we know a couple good finishes and we're going to be right back in the top three in points."
Biffle finished third at New Hampshire in the second Chase race a year ago; he was ninth at the track when NASCAR stopped there in July.
Kenseth, his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, is in a deeper hole. His 18th-place finish Sunday marked the third consecutive year Kenseth opened the Chase with a finish of 10th or worse. And New Hampshire hasn't been all that good to him of late. He was 13th there in July, but has just one top-10 in his last nine starts.
"Loudon has been a place that I've struggled at, but our goal is to get a good clean run on Sunday in order to make up some of our position in the point standings that we lost last weekend at Chicago," Kenseth said.
And then there's Denny Hamlin, who isn't in danger of falling out of title contention just yet. He was disappointed after running out of fuel late at Chicago — his gas man didn't get the tank full on the final stop and it cost Hamlin a top-10 finish.
After opening the Chase as the points leader, Hamlin's 16th-place finish dropped him to fifth in the standings. Only 15 points behind Chicago winner and new points leader Brad Keselowski, Hamlin is confident about his chances.
"This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week," Hamlin tweeted.
Maybe he will. Hamlin might have won at New Hampshire in July if not for late race miscommunication with crew chief Darian Grubb, who changed four tires when Hamlin only wanted two changed. The longer pit stop dropped Hamlin deep in the field, and despite a frantic final push, he finished second to winner Kasey Kahne.
He had a good attitude after the race — "I've been through this long enough now (that) you're going to have plenty more chances in the future, especially the way we're running," he said — and gets a chance to prove it Sunday.