Sunday was a case of Déjà vu for Carl Edwards
In a lot of ways, it was oh so familiar.
There was the No. 99 Ford racing underneath the checkered flag. And there was Carl Edwards doing his patented back flip just moments after snapping a prolonged winless streak.
If you wouldn't have known better, you would have thought it was a re-enactment from a moment two years ago.
Except this was no replay.
Instead, it was Edwards once again finding salvation in the Arizona desert and returning to Victory Lane after a two-year absence -- just as he did in 2010. And ironically enough, in both cases Edwards was able to eradicate a 70-race winless streak in the process.
"To be in Victory Lane this early in the season, to have a car like we had today is really, really great," Edwards said Sunday. "This win feels as good or better than any win I've ever had; so very excited about it."
It's no secret that Edwards has struggled in years where expectations were at the highest. Three times in his career, the Roush Fenway Racing driver has failed to win a race in a season where he was thought to be a serious candidate to win the championship.
Then there was that bounce-back season in the subsequent year where Edwards would roll off multiple victories; reminding everyone why he was so highly regarded in the first place. And of course, all this did was raise the bar further.
It's a vicious cycle where Edwards would succeed, disappoint and so on and so on.
"I'm no psychologist, but I can tell you, as drivers, we all have pretty fragile egos," Edwards said. "You are always questioning yourself. And if you aren't getting that positive reinforcement, it's tougher. For me, there's been a lot of self-analysis. ‘Am I doing the right things?'"
Edwards himself never bought much into the notion, thinking it was a mere coincidence and had more to do with luck than anything else. But as he rejoiced after having won a Sprint Cup Series race for the 20th time, even Edwards had to acknowledge the noticeable peaks and valleys that have marked his career.
"It's really interesting because I have fought you [media] on that stuff," Edwards said. "You guys say, well, you have a good year and then a bad year. I'm like, that's just chance.
"But it really has been happening. I don't know what that is."
However, there is something else noticeably different this time around.
Gone is Edwards' longtime crew chief Bob Osborne, who stepped down last season due to concerns with his health. In Osborne's place is Jimmy Fennig, who has brought a hard-nosed, strictly business approach to a team that had lost its way after narrowly losing the championship to Tony Stewart in 2011.
It was a job Fennig wasn't even sure he wanted. When asked by Jack Roush to take over as crew chief for the 99 team, Fennig had his reservations and had certain demands that Edwards would have to meet.
To his credit, Edwards has done just that, and although it's just two races into their partnership, it is likely Sunday was the just the first of many victories the pair will have this season.
"I don't think he (Fennig) wanted to do it with me this year," Edwards said. "Maybe if we do well enough, we can keep him around and we won't have any more bad years. I do not like ‑‑ those droughts are terrible, but the floodgates are open. Hopefully we can go out and do some good."
The Gen-6 is still a work in progress
After consecutive races where the common theme was how difficult it was to pass, it would be easy to say that the Gen-6 is a disappointment. However, while the early returns have been decidedly mixed, it is still too soon to draw any definitive conclusions one way or another.
That said, after 812 miles there has been a noticeable lack of side-by-side racing and, as was the case with the CoT, maintaining track position is more favorable than having a fast car.
In fact, the number of lead changes through two races this season is down from where it was at this point in 2012. Thus far there have been 40 combined lead changes occurring at Daytona and Phoenix -- 10 less than there were a year ago.
It's also hard to ignore the different tone many drivers are now taking about NASCAR's redesigned car.
Throughout offseason testing drivers seemed to speak with a sort of reverence about the brand-specific models that were being introduced and how the Gen-6 car would improve the quality of racing.
Although optimism still abounds, the rave reviews that were once so abundant have become fewer and fewer with reality setting in now that drivers have had a chance to wheel the Gen-6 car in actual race conditions.
"I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars," said third-place finisher Denny Hamlin. "This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning. The teams hadn't figured out how to get the aero balance right. Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you."
Conversely, to expect a dramatic and immediate increase of the on-track product is neither fair nor realistic.
Like any new thing it takes time to iron out and massage the kinks. The hope is that as the schedule takes teams to similarly built tracks and as crew chiefs and engineers stockpile data, that the promise of the Gen-6 can ultimately be reached.
"I think for the first race it was great," Matt Kenseth said after finishing seventh. "I think everybody loves these cars. The goal is always to get them easier to pass and they got a ton of down-force right now. I'm sure NASCR is going to adjust as they go and try to make it a little bit easier for the rear cars to catch somebody."
For now, let's just call Daytona and Phoenix a learning experiment and assume that after an extra day of testing at Las Vegas, these new cars will soon begin to hit their stride.
Danica struggled, but that's to be expected
Numerous folks will see the video of Danica Patrick slamming into the Turn 4 wall Sunday and think she was driving over her head.
That perception, however, doesn't meet reality.
At the time of her accident Patrick was running on the lead lap. And although she wasn't likely going to finish in the top 20, she was doing exactly what she needed to do: Driving patiently, keeping her nose clean and most importantly, logging laps and gaining experience.
"The car wasn't all that tight and I was mostly chasing the rear," Patrick said. And there was no vibration that told me in the lap before that told me it was going to happen.
"We'll just have to come at ‘em at Vegas. I really, really like Vegas so it should suit me well. But yeah, we were having a steady day. Not great, but we were making progress."
After her historic performance in the Daytona 500, it's easy to forget that Phoenix represented just Patrick's 12th in a Cup car. But as is the case with all rookies, this season is going to be filled with peaks and valleys -- more so of the latter than the former.
Patrick's freshman campaign shouldn't be judged in the number of wins or top 10s. Instead, success for her should be measured gradually and will often be subtle rather than obvious.