As NASCAR heads into its first off-weekend of the season, contenders are beginning to emerge that will provide the storylines for much of 2011.
The top 10 in the point standings is sprinkled with some surprising names, such as Paul Menard in sixth place, Martin Truex, Jr. seventh and A.J. Allmendinger ninth. "Junior Nation" even has reason for optimism as Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits in 10th after his solid race Sunday in Las Vegas. But the three names to really keep an eye on are Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch.
Stewart is the co-leader of the Cup standings with 113 points, the same as Busch. Stewart was the dominant driver on Sunday by leading 163 of 267 laps. When he was out front, he was untouchable, but two pit stops kept him out of Victory Lane, including one midway through the race when he left pit lane with an air wrench still attached to the car. By having to serve a penalty and pit again, Steward dropped to 22nd on the restart. He finished second to Edwards.
"I'm real disappointed," Stewart said. "I honestly think we had the car to beat today, we just gave it away. I don't know what happened on the pit stop there, but we had a miscue and had a penalty and had to go to the back, and unfortunately it kind of dealt our cards for us. We just shot ourselves in the foot two weeks in a row now. It kills me to throw a race away like that, especially at a place we haven't won at yet."
Edwards snapped a 70-race winless streak at Phoenix last year, then won the very next race at Homestead and was predicted to be a challenger to five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson for the title in 2011. Getting into Victory Lane at Vegas does nothing to diminish that, plus he finished second to Bayne at the Daytona 500.
"This is the best start to a season that I have ever had and you know Daytona could have gone any way," Edwards said. "That was a lot of luck involved in our good finish at Daytona. Phoenix was a very strong performance from everyone but we had bad luck there. I felt today we had a solid top-three car all day. Those are three different types of tracks with success on all three, so I am really excited about the season. This is a great start."
Edwards, as well as Stewart and Busch, have all experienced success at NASCAR's next stop, the high-banked, demanding half-mile at Bristol Motor Speedway, and Edwards is already thinking ahead to that 500-lap battle.
"Yeah it is already on my mind a little bit," he said of Bristol. "It is going to be a wild race and always is. I believe the reasons we were good at Phoenix we will be pretty good at Bristol, but you never know. We have won, I think, two races there. We have had good runs and had terrible days there too. I think that everyone goes through Bristol and hopes they have a good points day and a chance to win."
With NASCAR's new simplified scoring system, bad finishes by drivers bring a higher penalty in the standings than with the previous system. But bonus points can play a vital role in setting up a driver once the 10-race Chase for the Championship begins in September. And victories are important because the drivers with the most wins out of the top 10 will get the final two positions in the Chase.
"I hadn't thought of the bonus points in the Chase, but I did think a lot about the wild card position," Edwards said. "A lot of people knock the new points system saying they didn't put enough emphasis on winning. But when you look at it from the wild card perspective, the bonus points in the Chase, those two things alone make winning extremely important right now. So for us, the thing I'm most excited about this win or that makes me most excited about it is that we've got one in the column, in that win column already, and if we do well enough, maybe win one or two more, we'll be in a position to have that wild card no matter what happens at Bristol or Talladega, some of these tracks that we may not be in control of our own destiny, so it's good."