"Ideally, if all four [Hendrick] drivers win a race, we can just sit on our test sessions and know that we are in that first block," Johnson said. "That's really the objective I think for all the teams. Ideally, yes, let's save our test sessions until as deep in the Chase as we can. If we're behind, we'll have to burn some of those sessions to catch up."
Meanwhile, many observers believe the man to beat this weekend at Phoenix is Kevin Harvick. The Stewart-Haas Racing pilot qualified only 13th (missing out on the 12-driver pole shootout by a thousandth of a second), but several drivers, including Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing, noticed how well Harvick's No. 4 Chevrolet was handling in Friday practice.
Harvick emphasized that potential by setting the fastest lap in the Saturday morning practice, along with the quickest 5- and 10-lap runs, then running P1 in the afternoon practice, as well.
Harvick is facing the challenge of learning the ropes at a new team this year in addition to coping with all of the other changes NASCAR has introduced for 2014.
"Not only is it a new team, the way that you look at things and the way you go about things is so drastically different than what you ran last year, that we're looking for that baseline to be able to understand exactly what we need and where to work from," Harvick said. "In that same sense, things will evolve really fast because things are quite a bit different. You'll have something that will evolve into something new by the time you get to the next week."
Harvick agrees that capturing a win early in the season to lock into the Chase will somewhat change a team's approach heading toward the Chase.
"You have to keep the mindset that you still have to finish the races, but as you get in that position, you can start being a lot more aggressive with really anything," he said. "Car setups, fuel strategy, race strategy -- you can take a lot of chances, and then really, all you're after at that point is winning races to try to gain more bonus points to protect yourself in the first round of the Chase to get the cushion."
At shorter tracks such as Phoenix, where track position is of critical importance, mastering the new qualifying system could provide a driver and team with a big advantage. Perhaps it's not surprising that Team Penske, with years of experience in IndyCar Series qualifying shootouts, locked up the front row with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
"Oh yeah, Roger was all over that one -- he loves it," said pole man Keselowski. "He provided his feedback, which was great, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. At the end of the day, stock cars and Indy cars are drastically different, but the formats are very similar. The variable of alternate tire compounds in IndyCar kind of throws a little hitch in being able to carbon copy anything from over there, but I am sure there will be small things we will push for to be able to go back and forth."
With 26 races spread over more than half the calendar year, it's natural to call the NASCAR regular season a marathon. But in truth, it's a series of 26 sprints, all with equal value in terms of the championship picture.
NASCAR's new "Win and you're in" mentality gives the old cliché "any given Sunday" a whole new meaning. One really good day can completely turn around a really bad season.