The hype, the pageantry -- and yes, the blazing fire -- that are the Daytona 500 are now behind us, and with all due respect to the Great American Race, now it's time to ditch the restrictor plates and get the Sprint Cup season underway.
Drivers simply prepare for the 500 differently: the win and a place in history are all that matters. They spend a winter spent fixating on one race that rarely has a bearing on the rest of the schedule. But as they head to Phoenix, the focus turns to building a resume for the Chase.
"Once we get out [of Daytona] then I think a quick start means a lot," said Jimmie Johnson, who is eyeing one of his own after his streak of five consecutive titles was snapped last year. "It reflects on the offseason and what the teams have done there.... Nobody likes to go to [the regular-season finale at] Richmond stressing about that race, and that mindset begins in Phoenix."
If Daytona and restrictor-plate racing are, by nature, a crapshoot, then the next eight weeks are about separation. A run of the intermediate and short tracks make up the schedule -- Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bristol, Fontana, Martinsville, Texas, Kansas and Richmond -- until the return to restrictor-plate racing May 6 in Talladega.
No one's season is over after this run. You only need to look at Brad Keselowski's summer swoon last year for proof of that, but in the history of the Chase, drivers' performances before Talladega have been telling of who is going to reach the postseason.
In the eight seasons under the Chase format, 74.4 percent of drivers who have been above the points cutoff line have qualified for the Chase. Last season, the first with the two wild card entries, saw nine of the 10 spots that are determined by points filled by drivers who were in the top 10 by Talladega.
So yeah, it's kind of a pivotal stretch.
Aside from Johnson, who has his work cut out for him after a 25-point penalty from Speedweeks, here are five other drivers looking to make a statement before Talladega.
It's consistency from a guy who has always been consistent. But wins, not consistency, won the championship last season for Tony Stewart, who barely edged out Edwards. Will Edwards get more aggressive early on circuits that have been his strong suit to prove he's ready to make up for that 2011 runner-up finish? It could offer a strong glimpse into his mindset.