Now the real NASCAR seasons begins.
On Sunday the Cup circuit stops at Phoenix International Raceway, a flat one-mile oval located in the Arizona desert. PIR will be a far better measure than Daytona of which teams will flourish in 2012 and which ones will struggle.
Why? The restrictor-plate racing at the high banks of Daytona and Talladega is unlike the racing at every other track on the circuit. Nothing you learn at either Daytona or Talladega can be applied to the other tracks. So it's conceivable a driver could win a plate race and then disappear from view for the rest of the season, which is precisely what happened to the 2011 Daytona winner Trevor Bayne, who failed to even finish in the top ten at another track after taking the checkered flag in the Great American Race.
So this weekend the best teams in the sport should rise. For them, the majority of the offseason wasn't devoted to Daytona; it was preparing for places like PIR and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the Cup series will race on March 11.
Here are five drivers who should be in the lead pack as the laps wind down at PIR:
1. Kasey Kahne
Now that he's driving for Hendrick Motorsports, the most dominant team in NASCAR of the 21st century, Kahne is saddled with great expectations. If he's going to take a checkered flag in an early-season race, his best shot should be this weekend at PIR, where he's the defending race winner.
Kahne, who at Daytona was involved in a wreck and came in 29th, usually runs well on slick, flat tracks like Phoenix. He grew up in the Northwest racing on dirt and now excels at handling a loose racecar. Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis scored more points in the Chase last fall than every driver except Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, and I think the momentum from last year will spill over into Sunday. Kahne is my pick to reach Victory Lane.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Mr. Five-Time had a miserable Daytona 500 -- not only did he wreck on the second lap and finish 42nd, but also he was docked 25 points for an illegal modification the team made to the No. 48 Chevy before it even rolled onto the track. The team is appealing, but as of now Johnson has minus-23 points this season.
But seemingly all could be remedied for Johnson with a win at PIR, where he has four victories and a hard-to-believe career average finish of 5.4. Johnson has a long history of delivering clutch performances, and he could certainly send a strong message with another one on Sunday.
3. Tony Stewart
The reigning Cup champion was fast all during Speedweeks, but simply didn't have enough power under the hood to catch Matt Kenseth late. Stewart finished 6th in the Great American Race.
Last fall at PIR, Stewart led 160 laps and came in third. It would surprise no one in the garage if Stewart picked up on Sunday precisely where he left off in 2011, when he won three of the last four races of the season to steal the title away from Carl Edwards. Look for Stewart to author a top-five run.
4. Carl Edwards
In his last three starts at PIR, Edwards has a victory, a second-place run and a 28th place finish, caused by colliding with Kyle Busch early and suffering damage to his No. 99 Ford.
Edwards will be piloting a new car that will feature all the latest and greatest technological gains that Roush Fenway Racing made over the offseason. This race is especially important for Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne, because as I noted in Sports Illustrated before the Daytona 500, the No. 99 team needs a fast start to 2012. Edwards finished the Chase last year tied atop the standings with Tony Stewart, but lost the title to Stewart in the Chase tiebreaker of most wins (Stewart had five; Edwards zero).
The heartbreak of coming so close could doom the No. 99 team this year (see the disappearing act of Denny Hamlin in 2011 after nearly beating Jimmie Johnson for the title in 2010). At Daytona Edwards was impressive, winning the pole and then finishing eighth. He needs to back that up at PIR, one of his best tracks on the schedule.
5. Matt Kenseth
After winning his second Daytona 500, Kenseth, the 2003 series champion who has 22 career victories, became a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame. He also may very well be the driver to beat for the title in 2012.
Kenseth won the pole at PIR last November, dominated early (he led 65 laps) but then wrecked and finished 34th. Kenseth typically doesn't perform well in the desert -- his career average finish at PIR is 18.1 -- but he looked to have the car to beat last fall. And remember: the last time Kenseth won the Daytona 500 in 2009, he took the checkered flag in the following race as well.