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BYRNES: Not Necessarily The Early Bird

It took all of three races for Matt Kenseth to lead the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team to Victory Lane in his first year with the organization.

So, is my money on Kenseth for the championship? Not so fast.

In fact, my money isn’t on anyone just yet as it’s much too early in the 2013 season. Just because someone jumps out to a sizeable points lead or wins a race early in the season doesn’t position them as a championship favorite. We have 33 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races remaining this season. Let that number sink in for a moment.

Does an early-season win lend momentum or confidence to a team? Absolutely. I think it’s a huge mental boost for a team to reach Victory Lane in the opening races, especially this season after the crews have worked their guts out on the new Gen-6 car for months. Building and preparing these race cars for the track each week has been grueling and laborious. Teams worked around the clock in December and January, so a win early in the year is important in an emotional respect – not just for someone such as Kenseth, who is with a new team, but for any driver or organization.

According to Sam Hornish Jr., wins at this point in the season alleviate some of the pressure on a team and permit them to perhaps be a bit braver in decision-making. They might stretch the fuel mileage one week or be more experimental in their chassis setup another. Winning early helps teams in the point standings but provides so many ancillary benefits most people don’t consider.

Additionally, while some are suggesting Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr. have begun to separate themselves in the points from the others, I don’t think they’ve differentiated themselves from the pack in any way, shape or form. While they’re off to a terrific start to the year, that’s all they’ve done. They’re not favorites for the title yet. Look at Kasey Kahne – people pointed to him at Daytona as being the one to beat in the Daytona 500, but he crashed out. He’s displayed great speed every week and nearly won at Vegas, but he doesn’t have a lot to show for those efforts yet. However, his team knows they’re fast, and so does the rest of the garage.

We’re just three races into the season and it’s far too premature to declare anyone has shown they’re the class of the field or created degrees of separation between themselves and everyone else. Look at the schedule – the teams compete at five entirely diverse tracks in the first five races – five tracks with divergent characteristics. There remain a lot of unknowns that may begin to manifest in the next couple of races or may take a few more. Regardless, each NASCAR season develops its own personality, and that personality usually isn’t defined until around the midpoint of the season, which we historically have identified as the Coca-Cola 600 – not the March race at Bristol. By the time Charlotte rolls around, you’ll start to see who the real players are and who is struggling to catch up.

For example, people are saying Stewart Haas Racing is struggling in 2013. But are their problems attributable to circumstances and bad luck or poor performance? Ryan Newman has had two bad races in a row, but he very well could win Sunday at Bristol. It’s much too early to label a team as a favorite or “done” for the year.

Picking favorites is a waste of time at this point.

Statistics can be deceiving when it comes to predicting performance, especially with the new Gen-6 car. For instance, Michael Waltrip Racing’s three teams at Bristol last year did really well. In six races between the three cars, their worst finish was 11th. Brian Vickers returns to the seat of the No. 55 Toyota this weekend at Bristol, where he earned a pair of top-five finishes in 2012. However, that was in the COT and he hasn’t competed in the new car yet. The metrics we typically employ to examine who’s good at a particular track might not be accurate right now.

Late last season, Marcos Ambrose told me we could have a surprise winner early in 2013 because the new car likely will level the playing field. I agree. Bristol or Auto Club Speedway certainly could surprise us because we don’t yet know who has figured out the new car the best. As for what can we hope to know leaving Bristol on Sunday, how about who has best figured out Bristol?