Dale Earnhardt Jr. followed his victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 with a strong second-place finish Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
He continues to sit atop the Sprint Cup Series standings holding a six-point lead over Brad Keselowski, who for the second week in a row placed in the top three. Earnhardt and Keselowski finished behind Kevin Harvick, who was clearly the class of the field leading 71 percent of all laps in notching his first win driving for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Having finished fourth in the Daytona 500 and fifth at Phoenix, this year marks the first time since 1997 that Jeff Gordon has begun a year with consecutive top-five finishes. Accordingly, the four-time NASCAR champion finds himself third overall, just one point ahead of Harvick and two ahead of fifth-place Jimmie Johnson.
"Great fight by this team," Gordon said. "What a week it has been for this No. 24 team, from that top-five in Daytona, the Pepsi Max Test Drive II (video prank) and then here we are with another top-five here at Phoenix. Great way to start the season."
Quite a few prominent names have found themselves off to slower starts this season. Among those in the back half of the series standings are Clint Bowyer (23rd in points), Kurt Busch (30th), Martin Truex Jr. (35th) and Danica Patrick (39th).
It is no longer paramount, however, that drivers be consumed with their position in points due to NASCAR revising the criteria for securing a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth. While points still matter to some degree -- especially for qualifying purposes -- the emphasis is on winning. And that's why after just two races, Earnhardt and Harvick have virtually secured themselves one of 16 Chase spots.
"It's hard to take away a lot from two races," Earnhardt said. "Such a long season, so many things can happen. So many teams can learn and progress and the competition gets tougher and tougher throughout the year as everybody starts seeing what is happening in the garage. Secrets don't last long."
Sprint Cup standings
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||90||---||1|
|13||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||63||-27||0|
|35||Martin Truex Jr.||23||-67||0|