Biffle's staying power among five burning questions at quarter pole
C-posts served as water cooler fodder, a jet dryer caught fire, the defending champion Tony Stewart got off to an uncharacteristic fast start and David Reutimann managed to get on everyone's bad side.
It was, simply put, a wild first quarter of the Sprint Cup's regular season and it only whet our appetite for what's to come. With that, here are five burning questions that the Racing Fan is pondering as we enter the year's first off-week.
1.Can points leader Greg Biffle keep it up?
The Biff, who before this year hadn't been atop the standings since a one-week stay seven years ago, has now been sitting in first place for a month. No driver has been more consistent in 2012's early goings: his 6.8 average finish leads the series, he's qualified outside the top nine just once, run as high as first or second in every race but Martinsville and his four top-10s are equaled only be Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr.
But are we seeing the beginnings of a fade?
Biffle posted 13th-place finishes in two of the last three races and his stranglehold on the lead could be further tested over the next seven events (Texas, Kansas, Richmond, Talladega, Darlington, Charlotte and Dover).
While he has two wins at both Dover and Kansas -- and another at Texas -- only one has come in the last four years and he's averaged a 16.8 in his last five starts at Dover. Plus, Charlotte and Talladega rank among his worst tracks over his career, with averages of 17.8 and 20.6, respectively.
Biffle has impressed so far, but if he's going to make a real run at his first career title, he'll need to erase his struggles at those tracks.
2. Will Junior keep carrying the flag for Hendrick Motorsports?
The sport's flagship organization has had a strange opening stretch. Kasey Kahne, who was expected by many to be a Cup contender in Year 1 at HMS, is sitting a disappointing 31st in the standings. Meanwhile, four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon has three finishes of 26th or worse -- though if not for a wild ending at Martinsville he may have a victory.
Johnson is starting to find his typical rhythm, posting top-10s in four of the last five races -- and like Gordon he was challenging for a win late on the Virginia short track -- but it's Junior who is leading Rick Hendrick's crew, sitting second in the points, a mere six back of Biffle.
It's the highest Junior has been at this point in the season since he spent four weeks at No. 2 in 2008. The revitalized Earnhardt may not be going anywhere considering he has 10 career wins on four of the next six tracks and at least five top-10s on the two tracks he hasn't won on.
But there is the matter of that winless drought, which has now reached 135 races. As strong as Earnhardt has been this season, and he has been among the young season's most intriguing storylines, until he returns to Victory Lane the debate over whether he can supplant the charging Johnson as Hendrick's top driver will rage on.
3. Who's poised to make a run up the standings?
Kyle Busch. The debate this time isn't over whether we're seeing Old Kyle or New Kyle, it's largely been what's happened to Kyle? Rowdy is mired in his worst season since his first full year in Cup (2005), sitting 16th.
While he finished second at Fontana and sixth at Phoenix, Busch also has four finishes of 17th or lower, including a 32nd and a 36th. His results in those four races are down an average of 17.75 spots from his qualifying position and overall he's improved his track position by minus-2.0 over the last 10 percent of races.
It would seem to be a continuation of his late 2011 struggles when he closed out with finishes of 33rd, 27th, 36th and 23rd. So why shouldn't we be too worried? Busch could find himself climbing back up the rankings in a hurry.
While Talladega (24.9 average finish) is among his worst tracks and he's struggled at Texas, in the last six races at Richmond he has three wins and six top-sixes overall, he's been in the top five six out of the last nine at Charlotte and he's won at Dover twice.
4. Which 2011 Chase driver is in the most trouble?
Could it be anyone other than Kurt Busch? As much as he's tried to paint his move to Phoenix Racing as a -- forgive the pun -- cathartic experience, it's been tough to watch.
Busch has finished inside the top 10 just once and been 33rd or worse three times in ranking 26th in points. It's the lowest he's been at this point in the season since he was 34th in 2001, which was Busch's first full year in the series.
He has won on four of the upcoming tracks, and for a driver of Busch's talent, stealing a win in second-tier equipment isn't a crazy thought. But nothing we've seen so far suggests he can put himself into position to threaten for a Chase wild-card spot. He ranks 27th in laps run on the lead lap at just 40.7 percent and has 30 quality passes (overtaking a car in the top 15 with the race under green), which is 32nd.
Busch has made the Chase six out of its eight years, but it would be stunning to see him rebound and qualify this season.
5. Are we going to see a first-time winner in 2012?
It was one of 2011's defining storylines as Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose all earned their first Cup victories, but it has yet to happen this season -- though A.J. Allmendinger did come painstakingly close at Martinsville.
There's a small group of full-time drivers who have yet to hit Victory Lane in their career: Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Dave Blaney, Landon Cassill, David Gilliland, Michael McDowell and David Stremme. But only two of them (Penske Racing's Allmendinger and Richard Petty Motorsports' Almirola) have the kind of machinery needed to bring you there.
History tells us it's likely we'll see a first-time winner at some point this season. Just three times in the last 18 years have we not seen at least one first-timer winner. But how long will we be waiting?
Talladega, where the series lands on May 6, has been the site of nine drivers' first wins, with the latest coming in 2006 with Brian Vickers. If it's going to happen this season, NASCAR's largest track, and one of its most unpredictable races, would be the most logical place.