One word has defined the first quarter of the NASCAR season: parity. Last Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, in the ninth race of 2012, Kyle Busch became the seventh different driver to reach Victory Lane. Busch hadn't finished higher than 10th in his previous three starts, but at Richmond he held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. to take his first checkered flag since winning at Michigan International Speedway last August.
So why hasn't one driver roared to the front of the pack as Tony Stewart did last fall, when he won five of the 10 Chase races on the way to his third Cup championship? It appears that all of the power teams—Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing—are trying to follow the model of Stewart in 2011, when he didn't win his first race until the start of the Chase. The top drivers are now treating the year's first 26 races as test sessions for the postseason, meaning they're not afraid to try risky all-or-nothing setups that they'll be able to use again in the fall. This tactic doesn't breed consistency—hence the week-to-week fluctuations in performance—but it could pay big dividends in the Chase.
"We are gearing up to be the best we can at the end of the year," says Carl Edwards, who is ninth in the points and has yet to win a race in 2012 after finishing second in the final standings last season. "Right now we don't have the fastest car on the race track every week.... What we are banking on is that in those last 10 races we are good enough to shoot for the championship."
The early favorite to hoist the Cup in November remains Stewart, who is currently eighth in the standings and has two wins in 2012. Despite replacing crew chief Darian Grubb with Steve Addington during the off-season, Stewart doesn't seem to have lost any speed, having led more laps (298) this year than any driver except Jimmie Johnson (363) and Jeff Gordon (338). "Everything we do every weekend is with an eye toward the Chase," Stewart said earlier this year. "So if we miss it one weekend, we won't get too worried. In our business, all that matters is how you're running once the Chase begins. That's what we realized last year."