THERE’S A LOT RIDING ON DAYTONA

Between some of the hijinks at Sonoma, and given the way the standings are shaping up in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, there may be as many fireworks during the race (or at least the end of it) as there is after it. Look closely at the standings, and you can see why. For some, there’s a golden opportunity to fortify their position at the front. For others, a Daytona victory may be their last best shot.

For 2010 winner Kevin Harvick, this could become “Separation Saturday.” With four wins, Happy puts two wins between himself and his nearest competitors thus far. The way this season is shaping up, that could huge.

In his rear view mirror are a trio of drivers who know a thing or two about winning at the “Cradle Of Speed:” Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon. All have been stout this season with two wins each, all have had stumbles. A win here puts the heat on Harvick; lousy finishes could mean using their two victories for a wild card berth. Guess which one they’d prefer?

Points leader Carl Edwards finds himself in a position of being what Kevin Harvick was to 2010, and Tony Stewart was to 2009: loads of consistency essentially squandered due to an absence of wins. It was Carl who pushed Trevor Bayne to his surprise victory in February, and what with the way the FR-9s are performing, he has to be seen as a front runner.

While it’s really hard to find fault with Jimmie Johnson’s performance, he still doesn’t look like the dominator of old. If the Chase starts today, the 5-time defending champ finds himself in 6th. You know that doesn’t set well with Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, and of concern has to be the potential at a restrictor plate track to get caught up in somebody else’s mess and slip further.

Kurt Busch made huge gains with his first road course victory Sunday, now the winner of this year’s Bud Shootout and the first of the Gatorade Duels now has a chance to cross a points paying victory win off his bucket list. You know what? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Many think of Dale Earnhardt Jr. as “Mr. Restrictor Plate,” and there’s no driver out there feeling more pressure than NASCAR’s favorite son to pick off a win that would greatly enhance his Chase chances and get the monkey off his back. Clint Bowyer, 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman, 2009 Coke Zero 400 winner Tony Stewart, the venerable Mark Martin and Greg Biffle are also searching for their first wins of the current campaign. They’ve got a load of traffic trying to close on them.

The way things are going for Denny Hamlin, he may need a Daytona win just to get a wild card. A victory would seem to assure he gets in one way or another. Paul Menard, A.J. Allmendinger and Juan Pablo Montoya show just enough promise to have more than a puncher’s chance. Another really good day, and you can throw Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and/or Joey Logano into this conversation.

For some of NASCAR’s select drivers, this race means something. For others, it means a lot- perhaps the season. You may not be able to win a championship in July, but you sure can lose one. Throw in the fact that any one of about 20 drivers can win this- in a season that has already given us Trevor Bayne, Brad Keselowski and Regan Smith as race winners- and you can only imagine what that final turn is sure to be one firecracker of a race.

More articles by this author include:

Chase Forecast: Who’s In, Who’s Out
Road Courses Belong In NASCAR
Fuel Mileage Is Strategy, And Strategy Is Part Of Racing