Everyone knows the Daytona 500 is an aberration on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, a race where the final positions have little impact on overall potential for a season. The two events following it, however, offer a different perspective on the year.
It used to be that drivers caught up in crashes or parts failures in that season-opening race merely shrugged it off and looked down the road to recovering in the next 35 races. If another setback came along in the second and third races, then fortune just wasn't smiling in your direction yet. Plenty of time left to make that up.
Things are different now.
These days, opening the season with a string of bad finishes can alter a team's entire approach to the season. Certainly, a few early setbacks can be overcome -- look no further than Ryan Newman and his Stewart-Haas Racing team last season for proof of that. And clearly a bad finish in the Daytona 500 is no sign of a lack of championship potential (see Jimmie Johnson).
However, the window on poor performances is much smaller these days, and the impact of a couple of engine failures or crashing often in February can be felt well into the warm-weather months.
While bad runs in February and March may not signal the end to championship hopes, they can be the beginning of months of more cautious racing and sweating out the finishes a little more.
How much can it matter? History shows that usually at least half of the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is already in position after just three races of the season. That's right, often more than half of the drivers who will be contending for the title are already sitting in the top 12 three races into the year. That makes the Daytona, Auto Club Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway stretch carry a little more impact. After all, who wants to spend July and August watching the mirror for fellow drivers battling for a Chase berth?
In an era when the battle for a berth in the field has gotten tighter, drivers are all too aware of just how much weight these early races can carry.
That doesn't mean it is time to panic yet. No team should be counting on a championship run just because it is in the top 12 at this point. But you can bet the teams are already watching the standings and sizing up the competition. This season will have an added kink in that run to the Chase when NASCAR moves from the wing to a spoiler, which could further shake up the field. But the fact is the teams that are not running well right now -- not in terms of finishes but during races -- need to start worrying sooner rather than later.
That will remain true this weekend at Las Vegas. Many drivers view the back-to-back races at Auto Club and Las Vegas as the true beginning of the season. Not running well in these races offers a warning sign for teams; running well but not finishing among the front-runners does not.
Clearly, there is much racing left -- 24 events in fact -- before that Chase field is set. Therefore, it would be easy to overstate the impact of this opening segment and the next handful of races -- or would it?
"It's nice to get a good start," Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards says. "I saw an engineer did some statistics on after the first five races if you're in this position the probability of making the Chase is this -- and I'm sure that's based on their performance, because after five races if you've run really well, you'll probably run well more, but that stuff is important, I think."
Perhaps even more important than the points benefit of a strong start is the impact it can have on a team's frame of mind. Momentum can be elusive in Sprint Cup racing -- and drivers know that all too well.
Yet starting off a season on a high note can spark a team to even greater performances than it expected. For a team coming off a rough 2009 or one that crafted a new crew chief-driver pairing in the offseason, having a strong opening to the season is critical.
"To start the year off good is always a good thing, especially [since] the way we started last year wasn't spectacular," says Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick, who has finishes of seventh and second in his opening pair of races.
Teammate Jeff Burton agrees. A 16-year veteran of the sport, Burton knows how quickly a season can turn in either direction. He also knows, though, the value of a strong start.
"We felt good about what happened in the fall, over the winter," he says. "Until you start racing, you don't know where you are, honestly. You feel good about it. I had quite a bit of confidence coming in.
"But until everybody gets out here and they're going to give somebody a trophy, you don't really know where you stand."
Now, with finishes of 11th and third, he is getting an idea.
So is Hendrick Motorsports' Mark Martin, last season's championship runner-up. He has finishes of 12th and fourth and sits sixth in the standings. Now he heads to a track where he has a win and where he has earned nine top-10 finishes in 12 starts. He knows how important a strong start can be -- and how much a poor one can weigh on a team.
"It's a challenge that can be met and dealt with and overcome, but it requires a little bit different approach maybe than some of the other challenges you face," he says. "One of those aspects to that is the mental challenge of how you let that affect or how you react to everything. Driver, crew member, crew chief -- every individual. How you deal with that challenge can affect your performance because of how you react to every situation."
Richard Petty Motorsports' Kasey Kahne understands that as well. He has started fourth in each of the opening races but has finishes of 30th or worse in them.
Kahne, who knows all about making a late rally into the Chase field, isn't too concerned at this point.
"We just have to step up, and I need to step up and start doing a better job," he says. "I think we still have a pretty good opportunity to get back to where we need to be."
No doubt, though, running well at this point in the year can pay early dividends for a team -- especially in terms of confidence and momentum. And that can turn into a calmer run through the summer months as the Chase approaches.
Joe Gibbs Racing's Joey Logano, off to a strong start after finishing 20th in his 2009 rookie season, hopes that is the case for his group.
"To watch yourself improve that much, working with the team better, that feels really good," says Logano, who finished fifth in California and moved to ninth in the standings. "This is what we have to do every week. It's cool to see yourself improve from a year ago. Hopefully, we can get some momentum going and go to Vegas, which is one of my favorite tracks, so we'll have fun."