With two races completed, it's looking more like this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship will be a battle among three drivers -- Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.
Kenseth, who's in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, is off to a perfect start, winning at Chicagoland and New Hampshire. His teammate, Busch, has been impressive as well, finishing second in both races. Kenseth holds a 14-point lead over Busch, while Johnson is 18 points behind after placing fifth at Chicagoland and fourth at New Hampshire.
Round 3 in the 10-race Chase is Sunday at Dover. After Dover, the series heads to Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix before the season concludes at Homestead. Talladega, a restrictor-plate track, is the crapshoot race while Martinsville is the lone short-track event in the Chase.
"To be able to contend and to be able to try to race for a championship, you've got to be good everywhere," Kenseth said. "You have all kinds of different sizes and shapes of racetracks, and when you're racing against that whole group, you look at what the 48 (Johnson) can do and the 18 (Busch). You look at all those guys, and they're going to be good everywhere, so you better be good everywhere if you're thinking that you're going to be a contender."
Winning the first two races in the Chase doesn't necessarily guarantee that you'll claim the championship. In 2008, Greg Biffle began the playoffs with back-to-back victories at New Hampshire and Dover and then finished third at Kansas before he tumbled from there, finishing third in the point standings. Johnson won five of the last eight races that season to claim his third of five consecutive Sprint Cup titles.
"I won the first two Chase races before and then didn't win the championship," Biffle said. "Anything can happen. (Kenseth and Busch) have good momentum, and they've got good, fast cars."
Biffle's third-place finish at New Hampshire moved him from 11th to sixth in points (-38). It was his first top-five run since his victory three months ago at Michigan.
Two years ago, Tony Stewart started the Chase by winning at Chicagoland and New Hampshire but lost momentum by finishing 25th at Dover and then 15th at Kansas. Stewart bounced back with six straight top-10 finishes, including three victories. He ended the season in a points tie with Carl Edwards but captured the title by virtue of his five wins for the year compared to only one for Edwards.
It's likely we'll see the battle for this year's championship come down to the last lap at Homestead.
"Anything can happen anywhere," Kenseth said. "You can be at your best track and have whatever happen and get a bad finish. But we certainly have a lot of confidence in the next three tracks coming up for sure. In the past, they've been good tracks for us. I felt like we were real strong at Dover in the spring, and I know I had a mechanical problem, but I thought we were pretty strong when we ran there."
While Biffle started the '08 Chase 2-0, Busch's title hopes that season quickly went up in smoke when he suffered engine failure in the first two events. He finished 34th at New Hampshire and then 43rd at Dover. Busch won eight races during the regular season and was considered a strong favorite to win the championship. He ended the season 10th in points.
Busch is off to his best start in the Chase. He scored four wins during the regular season, including a victory in April at Texas.
"It's nice to get a strong start," Busch said. "You'd rather finish first both weeks than 43rd and get yourself up there and get a strong foundation built to where you can continue on down the road and maybe not have so much pressure on yourself to have to perform to catch up."
Johnson has improved significantly since the start of the Chase. He had finished 28th or worse in the last four races of the regular season -- Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. Johnson held a comfortable 75-point lead prior to Michigan. He was one point behind Edwards after Richmond. The Hendrick Motorsports driver entered the Chase as the second seed with 2,012 points.
"To open with (two top-five finishes) is great," Johnson said. "We're in a good spot. We haven't given up too many points, and we're going to one of my best racetracks this week in Dover."
Johnson has seven wins at Dover, which is more than any other active driver.
While Kenseth, Busch and Johnson are currently in the top three in Chase points, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne have a lot of catching up to do.
Earnhardt finished 35th at Chicagoland after his engine expired late in the event. At New Hampshire, he was forced to pit for a second time during an early race caution due to a loose lug nut, but he rebounded nicely for a sixth-place run. Earnhardt is now 62 points behind. He has not won since June 2012 at Michigan (47 races ago).
"Glad we were able to get a decent finish out of it," Earnhardt said. "Just want to win one. I'm trying hard."
Logano, who's in the Chase for the first time, also had trouble with his motor at Chicagoland, as he finished 37th. His 14th-place run this past Sunday has him sitting 69 points behind Kenseth.
Kasey Kahne took the biggest hit in the Chase standings at New Hampshire. He finished 37th due to an accident that occurred in the late stages. He is now last in points (-71).