LAS VEGAS -- It's a field full of contenders for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but at the wrong end of the standings. Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. -- all of them star drivers with hopes of vying for the series championship, and all of them 30th or worse in points entering Sunday's event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
No question it's early, and there are plenty of examples of drivers who have stumbled out of the gate only to recover -- a task made somewhat less daunting by a Chase wild-card system that awards two playoff berths based on race victories. But there are also many others who plummeted into early holes never to climb out, their title aspirations ultimately doomed by shortcomings in events that seemed distant memories by the time the championship field was set.
Clint Bowyer has been there. Last year's series runner-up missed the 2011 Chase in part because of a sluggish start to the season that forced him to play catch-up for the remainder of the year. And remembers the feeling very well.
"Whatever the case may be -- it may have just been you just got caught up in two bogus crazy things that happened. But nonetheless, you're panicked," Bowyer said. "Here you are, your peers, the guys that you're going to be racing for a championship with, have had two good runs. You can see those smiles on their faces. They're happy-go-lucky. And your guys are miserable. Somehow you got to get that train turned back around and pointed in the right direction."
It's very easy for a driver to fall behind, given the somewhat capricious nature of the Daytona 500. And indeed, all those title contenders currently at the wrong end of the standings were victims of incidents in the season opener -- Busch and Truex engine issues, Harvick and Kahne accidents. But regardless of how those early struggles unfold, recovery isn't always immediate. And the longer it takes, the longer the doubts begin to play on a driver's mind.
"It's so important to get that momentum and the points base established," Bowyer said. "We've already seen teams struggle the very first two races and get themselves behind. If you look, these points are hard to accumulate, and you have two bad races in a row -- that's a month of really solid, really good runs to get yourself catapulted back up to where you need to be. Not to mention, just the momentum, the psychological part of it. This is a mental game, and if you get yourself beat up early, sometimes you don't ever get out of it as a group."
No question, it's possible -- Kahne and Jeff Gordon did just that last season, both of them overcoming snake-bitten starts to 2012 and rallying in time to claim the wild-card berths to the Chase. And reigning champion Brad Keselowski's breakout season of 2011 opened miserably, with him standing 25th in points on Memorial Day weekend before he won three times and vaulted into the thick of the championship race.
"It can either tear you completely apart, or make you stronger," Gordon said of the experience. "And I think in our case, it made us stronger, and I think that's just a sign of how strong-knit a team we are and how we communicate. Because we were challenged every weekend with good race cars and bad results. We just kept fighting through it. But in this sport, in this day and age, it's so competitive so far back, it's hard to fight your way out of that type of a hole if you get into one early in the season. You have to perform really well and really go on a streak to get out of it."
And not every team is capable of doing that. Last season, Gordon and Kahne were both buoyed by the knowledge that their cars were much better than their finishes, which gave them hope that a recovery was ultimately possible. But that's not always the case, and teams that struggle for reasons relating more to performance can find it very difficult to make the kind of run or knock out the number of race victories it may take to get back in contention.
"Two races in, not a big hole. But when you get three or four races in and you're still 30th in points, you're starting to dig a big hole, and you've got to go. To overcome that, you have to have really good finishes, and you probably have to have wins. You probably at that point have to start looking at wins," said Jeff Burton, who has endured his share of tough starts in recent years.
"It's a 26-race (regular-season) schedule, so when you're five in, and you're 30th in points, you've got to pass all those people in 21 races to get where you need to be. And that's very difficult to do. Kahne and them did it last year, but they won races. You've got to be on your game to overcome that big of a hole. We're not there yet. Two races in, we're not there yet. Someone will leave here in a bigger hole than they're in today. Not us. But it gets harder and harder as the weeks go by."
Even an eventual recovery can come with a price -- Gordon's team spent so long trying to make up their deficit, making the Chase by the barest of margins on the final night of the regular season, it was clearly spent when it became time to decide the championship. Even so, he believes that experience strengthened the bonds between members of his race team, which paid off in the form of a victory in the season finale at Homestead and a much more promising start to this year.
"I think that is the best thing that happened to us, even though I don't like the way we ended up the season," said Gordon. Of course, it certainly didn't seem that way at the time, as the hole got deeper following one misfortunate event after another. Some teams are staring at that exact circumstance now, although the level of concern can vary.
"It's so early right now," said Tony Stewart, 23rd in points after a crash in the Daytona 500 and a top-10 run at Phoenix. "There are so many things that can happen. I think it's way too early to be thinking about that. I think if you're a team that's worrying about it right now, I think you're worrying about making it in to begin with. I think the teams that have confidence that they're going to be in or should be in the Chase probably aren't too concerned about it."
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and if you get yourself beat up early, sometimes you don't ever get out of it as a group."
-- Clint Bowyer