Phoenix and then Las Vegas on March 6 are the true indicators of the teams and drivers to beat in 2011, since these 1.0 and 1.5 mile tracks are what dominate the Sprint Cup championship. And that bodes well for the driver who leads the standings -- Carl Edwards.
Why isn't Trevor Bayne the points leader? Simple: This is the first year that NASCAR is limiting the competitors to earning points in one series only. That move was made to help boost the Nationwide Series and keep full-time Cup drivers from taking away points from the drivers who are primarily competing in Nationwide.
For young Bayne, he has a full-time Nationwide ride with Roush Fenway Racing and for now, a 17-race Cup schedule with the Wood Brothers. He may have won NASCAR's biggest race on Sunday, but he collected zero points for the effort.
That puts Edwards as the leader of the standings heading to Phoenix. With NASCAR's new, simplified scoring system he has a one-point lead over David Gilliland and Bobby Labonte, who got one bonus point for leading a lap in the Daytona 500. Kurt Busch is two points behind the leader in fourth place.
While Gilliland and Labonte are near the top of the standings, don't expect to see them there for long. They benefited greatly from the wild style of racing at Daytona where bad luck hit some of the top drivers who were involved in crashes early in the race.
Edwards, Kurt Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart are all in the top 12 in the standings heading to Phoenix. For Edwards, the Busch Brothers, Martin and Stewart, PIR has been a great track so expect those drivers to excel and solidify their early positions in the standings.
Edwards drove to victory at Phoenix last November and is a great pick to back that up on Sunday. That one victory is one of his five top-5 and nine top-10 finishes in 13 starts.
"I'm going to go to Phoenix next week and look at the points and think [Daytona] was OK," Edwards said. "We'll race Daytona 500 again next year. There is a very bright side to our day today. We are going to have bad days. It's nice to get out of this one, considering the chaos that was going on, it is nice to get out of here with a great points run.
Lurking back in fourth place is Kurt Busch, who has one win, four top-5 and nine top-10 finishes at Phoenix. He drove to victory in this race in April 2005. With a new sponsor and paint scheme, Busch was one of the most impressive drivers during SpeedWeeks. That could be the boost he needs to get off to a great start in 2011.
"We came all this way and came up a little shy," Busch said. "All in all, it was a great point's day for us. We'll take it. To have a run at history was something special. I tried to block it out all day. We fought through adversity when we knocked a hole in the grille.
"Now we can move on to Phoenix and get the season started. I'm real happy with this fifth-place finish. To make a mistake on the last lap, I'm going to be the one that has the sour feeling in my stomach."
Busch drew high praise from team owner Roger Penske.
"I think Kurt drove a masterful race today," Penske said. "It was just one of those days at the end where we needed the right partner. With all the green-white-checkered flags (two), you want to be careful because we're running for the championship. Two wins (Bud Shootout and Gatorade Duel) and a fifth-place today in the 500, this month at Daytona is a great finish for us."
Montoya is fifth in points and has never won at Phoenix. He has one top-5 and two top-10 finishes in eight PIR starts.
Kyle Busch drove to victory at Phoenix in November 2005. That is his lone top-5 and one of his seven top-10 finishes in 12 starts. He was eighth in this race last year and 13th last November. Busch is seventh in the standings after one race.
Martin is ninth in points and is a two-time winner at Phoenix with victories in 1993 and in this race in 2009. Those two wins are among his 12 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes in 28 starts.
Tony Stewart has raced practically every type of race car at Phoenix, from the USAC Open Wheelers in the Copper World Classic, to IndyCars to NASCAR. Stewart drove to victory at Phoenix during his Cup rookie season in 1999. That is his lone win, but is among his seven top-5 and nine top-10 finishes in 18 starts.
Recently, however, Stewart has struggled at PIR with finishes of 25th, 23rd and 17th in his last three starts.
There are plenty of drivers hoping to make a big rebound from poor finishes at Daytona. Those include Denny Hamlin, who is 19th in points; Ryan Newman arrives 20th, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 22nd, five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is 25th, Jeff Gordon 26th, Matt Kenseth 31st, Greg Biffle 32nd, Jeff Burton 33rd and Kevin Harvick all the way back in 37th.
Johnson's quest for a sixth-straight Cup championship gets off to a slow start with his 27th-place finish, but a look back shows that shouldn't really impact him negatively. Since winning the Daytona 500 in 2006, Johnson has finished 39th in 2007, 27th in '08, 31st in 09 and 35th in 2010. He went on to win the Cup title in all of those seasons.
After contending for the Cup title in the final race of the season, Harvick has some ground to make up beginning next week at Phoenix. But a bad finish at Daytona does not doom his chances as he heads to one of his best race tracks.
"Obviously, you come to the first race of the year and have that happen right off the bat is just something you don't really want to have happen and it's just one of those things," Harvick said. "It happens. We go years and years without engine failures and they do a great job on that. So, it happens."
After spending two weeks in Daytona, the team transporters loaded up and hit the road for the long drive back to the team shops in North Carolina. A quick turnover of cars and equipment and then it's off to an even longer drive to Phoenix International Raceway for this weekend's race.
NASCAR's band of drivers and crews headed out of town Sunday, with little time to recover from what has been two crazy weeks of racing.
It's doubtful that anyone would have picked Trevor Bayne to win the Daytona 500 -- at least before last Thursday's first Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying race. That was when the then-19-year-old driver demonstrated the talent and patience to run up front in the Daytona 500. Bayne's victory makes a great story and this "two-by-two-by-two" style of racing produced a spectacular event at newly-repaved Daytona. But the real question may be how was it received by the fans?
Though, traditionally, successful races were thought to include long freight trains of cars all grouped together in one large pack, this year's Daytona 500 dispelled that idea. The new shape of the cars and the great pavement on the race track produced some thrilling, "Who is going to win it?" racing. But there were still plenty of fans and media personalities confused by the action.
It's hard to argue that Sunday's Daytona 500 didn't produce some spectacular results. There were a race-record 74 lead changes among 22 drivers. Ryan Newman led the most laps when his Chevrolet was in front nine times for 37 laps. For the second year in a row, there was a "Storybook Winner" as a driver who turned 20 one day before the race became the youngest Daytona 500 winner in history.
But this frantic and unfamiliar style of racing also produced a Daytona 500 record 16 caution periods for 60 laps. That's because no driver could get to the front without a second car behind them. And that second car had to have the nose on the front end up against the rear of the leading car, jacking it up to the point where the contact between the two would rub the paint and decals off the front nose of the race car.
This wasn't "Bump Drafting" -- the dangerous form of racing that had become prevalent at Daytona and Talladega the past five years or so, this was "Push Drafting" where the two cars were literally pushing each other.
When it was done properly, it allowed two cars to drive away from the field, which made this year's Daytona 500 appear more scattered with cars fanning out in little two-car packs around the track. It also caused NASCAR to make a series of rules changes to the opening of the front grilles as engine temperatures soared and speeds reached 206 mph in the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona on Feb. 12.
NASCAR officials could live with two-car packs hitting 200 mph, but anything over that was unacceptable so the grille opening was adjusted to limit the air in hopes of getting two-car packs to unlock. A pressure relief valve was also lowered to have water from a hot engine start to escape at a lower temperature. Then, the restrictor-plate was trimmed by another 1/64th of an inch to lower the speeds.
But when warmer weather arrived for the weekend, NASCAR increased the grille opening to keep engines from overheating, adding yet another rules change in less than one week.
Despite the tinkering, there were three blown engines and it didn't change the two-car tandems that were essential in succeeding in the race.
"I think that the ratings, whatever scores we can look up, all that stuff, that doesn't tell the story of what's going on out there on the racetrack," Carl Edwards said. "We really do have the most competitive racing that I've ever been a part of, the closest battles. We have races like we had today with, you know, a new winner, up-and-coming guy in the sport that's tied to so much history with the Wood Brothers. This is as good as it gets guys.
"If people aren't watching, that's their problem, because we got some great stuff going on here."
While Carl Edwards was the driver that actually pushed Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne across the start/finish line, it was actually Bobby Labonte that gave Bayne the big push at the end of the race to keep him out front before the mad scramble at the end shuffled him back to fourth.
Labonte's first race for JTG Daugherty Racing was impressive and put the 2000 Cup champion back into contention, at least at Daytona.
"It means a lot," Labonte said. "People are going to criticize me for not laughing or smiling enough or whatever, but I was still disappointed we didn't win this Daytona 500. That's going to bother me probably for a little bit, but I think by tomorrow morning. These guys did a great job today. We battled back from a near spin over there and we got a top-5 out of it. Today was such a wild day. It was just a little bit too wild at times so to survive -- I think, was a big thing."
Bayne realizes Labonte's help was essential in winning the race. But Labonte was unable to hold off the hard charging Carl Edwards.
"I hooked up with the 21 (Trevor Bayne) right here before we ever got to the start finish line and pushed passed the white flag, and the guys back in the back were jockeying around," Labonte said. "Obviously, I saw them coming and I went into (turn) three and I was just probably a quarter of a car length up too high, but I think of the 99 (Carl Edwards) and he might have went to the outside of us. [Edwards] was going so fast. He had a run on us.
"Congratulations to Trevor (Bayne) and the Wood Brothers -- that's awesome for those guys. We came home with a top-four with our Camry so that was good. It was a little wild out there today. Thank God for a great day and we just survived this thing and finished fourth. Wish we could've won, but it looked like the 99 (Carl Edwards) and 34 (David Gilliland) were coming with a full head of steam and we couldn't really keep up with them."