Time to see who has what


AVONDALE, Ariz. -- NASCAR whipped fans into a frenzy over the offseason with changes to Sprint Cup cars, new qualifying rules and a total revamp of the Chase for the Sprint Cup into an elimination-style playoff.

Then its most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., scored a satisfying victory at the Daytona 500 season opener, with the drama in NASCAR's biggest race of the season prolonged and intensified by a lengthy rain delay.

What's next?

Well, it's time for Sprint Cup teams and drivers to ease into the grind of the "regular season" -- 25 points races in the next 28 weeks, starting with Sunday's The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

NASCAR is the only sporting organization in the world that starts its competition year with its most prestigious and important event. By itself, that creates a natural post-Daytona letdown for competitors and the fan base.

You could argue that, by effectively locking himself into the Chase with his Daytona victory, Earnhardt, the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team and Junior Nation just need to mark time for the next six months until the new-look playoffs start.

But Earnhardt insists that there will be no Daytona hangover and that he and crew chief Steve Letarte won't relax as Junior chases his first Sprint Cup championship. Earnhardt, a two-time Phoenix winner, qualified fifth for Sunday's race.

"I feel like I shouldn't have any problem getting out there on the racetrack and doing the best I can do," he said. "I've been doing this a long time and have had the opportunity to win races and get back the next weekend and do well. It should be no problem."

On Friday, Jimmie Johnson talked about how observant his Hendrick teammate Earnhardt is. For his part, Earnhardt owned up to closely watching Johnson and the No. 48 team in their amazing run of six Sprint Cup championships in the past eight years and said he and Letarte can already start to focus on a championship run of their own.

"I've really seen what goes on behind closed doors," Earnhardt said. "When they get comfortable that they are in the Chase, they really start to experiment or try to find things outside of their comfort zone that can help them during the Chase. We can start thinking about that earlier than most people. You might see things in the middle of the race where we might do some strategy where we take two tires more often, instead of four tires, to get the track position and see how the car handles and see if we can hold it until the next opportunity to put four tires on it. Maybe try things earlier in the race to sort of set us up that we probably wouldn't do if we were trying to get points.

"Points aren't quite as important, I guess, as wins, so things might change a little bit."

Johnson, who qualified immediately in front of Earnhardt at Phoenix in fourth place, revealed that he and crew chief Chad Knaus are already taking the long view toward a possible seventh Cup title. Johnson is a four-time winner at Phoenix, and a win for him Sunday would all but lock two of Rick Hendrick's four drivers into the postseason. It also would affect his team's plans and preparations for the Chase, even though it's six months away.

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