The 2011 Sprint Cup season begins for real on Sunday afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway.
Fans expected a major standings shakeup leaving Daytona and the Great American Race delivered. Race winner Trevor Bayne received no points and the top ten featured unfamiliar faces including David Gilliland, Bobby Labonte, Regan Smith and Paul Menard.
Whether or not they can stay there is the question. The new points-paying system heavily favors top-tens and strongly punishes those outside of the top-25.
This means that Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson all have their work cut out for them on Sunday. Gordon and Johnson were involved in the lap 26 "Big One" at Daytona while Harvick lost an engine on lap 22. The road to the Chase is slightly more challenging than in years past for those sitting outside the top half of the standings.
This is shaping PIR into an important early stand in the race to the Chase. But the spring race is actually shaping up better for some who completed the Daytona 500.
Especially Carl Edwards.
Edwards is the current points leader, one tally ahead of Gilliland and Labonte. Edwards has one win at Phoenix, a fuel mileage gamble in November, but don't let that fool you. The Roush-Fenway driver has been dominant in the desert for several stretches during his career.
Edwards has five top fives and nine top tens with an average finish of 11.8. His driver rating of 101.7 is the second best in the league and has 2,777 laps in the top 15, good for fifth-most in the circuit.
The November victory capped off a winning weekend for Edwards, who also captured the Nationwide Series race at Phoenix that Saturday. Edwards is a strong candidate to return to victory lane and make it two in a row in the desert.
As for those on the outside looking in, Harvick and Johnson may have the best chance at finding victory lane.
Phoenix is the first of seven flat track races teams will see in 2011 and no driver was better at them in 2010 than Kevin Harvick. The RCR driver had an average finish of 5.6 on flats and captured five top fives and six top tens in 2010 (Seven starts). While consistent, Harvick only led ten times during that stretch and has an average career finish of 14.4.
Harvick does have two victories at Phoenix with his last coming in 2006. "Happy" is a solid Sunday pick.
With all due respect to Dover and Martinsville, Phoenix may be Jimmie Johnson's best track. The defending champion enters Phoenix having four wins, 10 top fives, 13 top tens and one pole. He carries an average race-finish of 4.9 and has a Cup-best 122.6 driver rating at the one-mile oval.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus bested PIR in 2010 with a fifth-and third-place finish and 113 laps led. Don't sleep on Five-Time.
Other good picks include Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton. Martin has 12 career top-five finishes. Gordon has an average finish of 10.4 and Burton carries a Cup-high 590 green flag passes. The win should come from one of these seven drivers.
The Subway Fresh Fit 500 begins at 3:00 p.m. EST from Phoenix International Raceway and will air on FOX.
Who do you see coming out on top?