The Sprint Cup season is two weeks away from beginning in earnest, but already there are two main targets for top teams:
1. Win the Daytona 500.
2. Perform well enough over the 26 races of the “regular season” to qualify for the Chase.
Only one driver can claim the 500 crown, of course, but the battle for the 12 Chase spots will stretch across eight months and is likely to involve as many as 20 teams at one time or another.
Recent history indicates that drivers who qualify for the Chase one year are likely to return to the Dashing Dozen the next year, but there also is enough turnover to make even top drivers nervous.
In 2011, there were three Chase drivers who didn’t qualify in 2010 – Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman. Last year, the Chase field had four faces that weren’t around in 2011 – Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Martin Truex Jr.
And, in 2006, seven of the 10 drivers who qualified in ’05 weren’t in the hunt for the title.
Of the drivers who failed to make the Chase last season, two – Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards – seem to be the most likely to return to the fast fold this season.
Busch was plagued by engine and fuel-mileage troubles last year, and Edwards had a season of misery. If both fail the Chase test again this year, heads are likely to roll.
If there are going to be new Chasers this year, which drivers from 2012 are at risk of missing the playoffs?
Team owner Rick Hendrick successfully met his goal of putting all four HMS drivers – Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr. – in the Chase last year. That could happen again, but, with four teams racing and only 12 spots to fill, it’s very possible that at least one HMS team won’t make the championship hunt.
Although Michael Waltrip Racing showed remarkable gains last year, it will be tough for both Bowyer and Truex to repeat in a crowded field of quality teams.
And what of Richard Childress Racing? Kevin Harvick raced for the title again last year, but his lame-duck status with the team could jumble his chances.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.