In a world that thrives on instant analysis, it’s so easy to fall into the two-race trap of choosing who’s a true Chase contender. Ryan Newman? DNFs mean forget it. Denny Hamlin? Looking shaky at best. Kevin Harvick? Leading the points and in perfect position to challenge Jimmie Johnson… right?
But in a year with a giant monkey wrench in the middle, one simple word tears every expert prediction to shreds.
“You can’t gauge where you stand right now [because of] what’s coming,” said Jeff Burton Friday. “Anybody that tells you that spoilers aren’t going to make any difference, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
That word has sent shivers down many spines in the Sprint Cup garage, “spoiling” any good vibes so far with the knowledge an open test (or two) in March is all they’ll get before the biggest rules change since the current car came to be in 2007 – and it’s happening smack in the middle of the season. It’s a switch that appears aesthetic on the surface, making the cars look more “stock” in nature, but the estimated impact when they come up to speed is already proving larger than expected.
“At first sight, it looked to be pretty drastic, I think even to NASCAR’s eyes what they saw,” said Jeff Gordon. “I don’t even know if they’ve determined exactly what spoiler size we’re going to have yet. I know that everything is still an open option after the [upcoming] test, but I know that they changed it a little bit to get to where they are, because it was a big shift of front downforce when they first went out there.”
That leaves teams with a moving target ahead, requiring instant attention and leaving them with the difficult choice of how they’re going to handle the next six to eight weeks. Just how, exactly, can they feel good about their season if they’re running a handling package on the verge of becoming obsolete?
“I would love to sit up here today and tell you how great we are and how we’re doing well, [but] the immediate challenge is the spoiler thing,” said Burton, who’s fifth in points but armed with the knowledge that success could easily be short-lived. “We have to find a way to be good when the spoiler comes. Every team in the garage is fighting that.”
It’s a telling statement by the veteran, albeit affected in part by RCR’s difficulties remaining consistent these last 12 months. But in the midst of that fear comes a forceful point: How can you rest on your laurels when, two months from now, you’ll be staring at something dramatically different?
At least other members of his RCR team see a silver lining in their solid start. Teammate Clint Bowyer claims, handling change or no, a string of three or four good races early can make a difference over the long haul.
“Even as early as it is, I was looking back and we already have 100 points on some of these teams that were in the Chase last year,” he says. “So, if you can stack that up a couple of more times, it gives you a pretty good pad even for the rest of the year. With competition as close as it is today, you can’t afford any mistakes.”
“I certainly wouldn’t say you start from scratch,” adds Gordon. “I feel like it’s going to affect everybody kind of the same. So I don’t really think it’s going to have this big effect on who’s running good and who’s not running good and change that.”
“I still think the strong teams are going to still be strong.”
In fact, that change could be a Godsend to some of those “strong” teams, like Gordon, who find themselves down in their luck early this season. Among those Chasers outside the top 12 in points already: Gordon, Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya, Newman and Kasey Kahne. With 24 races left to make up the gap, they’re breathing that much easier knowing the playing field gets leveled in the matter of a few short weeks.
“Our team’s been doing a lot of work with our computer simulations, wind tunnel, trying to understand just how it’s going to affect the balance of the car,” said Gordon. “We’re not panicking where we’re at right now, and we’re excited about how we’re running and how our team’s performing.”
“We’ll assess the spoiler when it comes.”
“At the current rate, we just have not been good enough,” adds Carl Edwards, 10th in points but without more than two laps led in any race since Pocono in June. “So anything that comes along that shakes things up is good for us.”
Either way, it’s bound to “spoil” the fun for some cars running up front early – meaning two weeks, more than ever, does not a full season make.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us. If we don’t continue to do the things we need to do, then [success] will turn the other way,” says Burton. “We’re two races into a 26-race deal, and that’s really enough said right there.”