Coming out of the second off-weekend of 2011 it is a perfect time to examine the start of the season. Since the cars hit the track 11 weeks ago in the Budweiser Shootout to kick off the year, there have been a few developments over the three short months that may set the stage for the long summer stretch towards the Chase.

Some of the usual contenders have once again found their place in the top 10 in points, while others are struggling to make their way into the top 20. New faces have emerged from mediocre mid-pack runs to become potential Chasers, and some have simply shocked the world with their performances.

Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick have picked up where they left off at the end of 2010. Eight races into the season, Edwards is first in points with a win at Las Vegas, Johnson is second after his narrow victory last week in Talladega and Harvick has overcome a 43rd place finish in Daytona to sit fourth in the standings.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises, a pleasant one for many fans, has been the performance of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Currently facing a 101-race winless streak, Earnhardt Jr. has been close to Victory Lane on multiple occasions and already has a better record after eight events then he did in all of 2009. With two top 5s, five top 10s and one pole, Earnhardt Jr. is third in points and has a renewed vigor at the track.

Among the frontrunners at the end of last season, the one that is missing from this year’s battle is Denny Hamlin. Heading into Homestead with the points lead last year, Hamlin lost the championship to Johnson, and perhaps has fallen into the runner-up slump we have seen in years past.

After Jeff Gordon finished second in points to Johnson in 2007, he was winless for the first time since his rookie year in 2008. That season Edwards emerged as the biggest threat to Johnson, winning nine races and finishing second in points. Like Gordon, Edwards also went winless in 2009. Next came 2009 runner-up Mark Martin. Winning five races in his championship quest, Martin was trumped by Johnson and fulfilled the trend by going without a win last season.

Now, back to Hamlin, last year he had eight wins and lost the title to Johnson by 39 points. This season, Hamlin has only one top 10 – a seventh in Las Vegas – and has finished outside the top 20 in four of the eight races. Sitting 17th in points, Hamlin has a long way to go if he wants to be a part of this year’s Chase field.

What may make Hamlin’s trek back to the top 10 more difficult is the fact drivers such as Paul Menard have emerged as serious contenders in 2011. Often criticized for benefiting from his family’s sponsorship dollars, Menard joined Richard Childress Racing this season and has been fast from the get-go. Thanks to two top 5s and three top 10s, Menard currently sits 11th in points, just 53 marks out of first.

Unlike in years past, however, this year’s Chase is made up of the top 10 in points, plus the two drivers inside the top 20 with the most wins. This presents a potential opportunity for someone like Hamlin or Gordon – who already has a win at Phoenix – to go on a streak and win their way into the Chase. This also presents a challenge for a driver like Menard that he would not have faced in previous years.

Instead of racing to make it into the top 12 in points, drivers and teams will now have to be mistake free week-in and week-out to scratch and claw their way to become a part of the elite 10 teams. While we have yet to see how this change to the point system will play out, it means the Chase will be a more selective group once again and will not allow for too many mistakes. That makes things more difficult for drivers like Tony Stewart, Gordon, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle and Hamlin – all previous Chasers – who have struggled a bit in the opening weeks of the season.

Things have picked up on and off the track this year and it appears there is little room for error and less chances to make up for mistakes. Thought to be Chase contenders coming into the year, Jeff Burton, Jamie McMurray and Joey Logano have all struggled early on this season. Poor luck, engine trouble and overall struggles have mired this trio 22nd, 23rd and 24th in points, respectively. While it is a long shot for these three to work their way into the top 10 at this point in the season, they need to be in the top 20 in order to qualify for the Chase on wins.

Heading into Richmond this weekend, the season will hit the long summer stretch that can make or break a team’s year. Facing 12 straight weeks of racing – with the Sprint All-Star Race thrown in there as well – teams are about to face one of the most important parts of the season. Tracks such as Richmond, Darlington, Dover, Charlotte, Sonoma and Daytona have the potential to lead to rough finishes and torn up race cars.

For those looking to win their way into the Chase, some of these tracks are favorable, for others they are potential pitfalls. Either way, based on the first eight events of the year, we can expect the action to continue to heat up and the competition to get even closer as the season marches towards the Chase.


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