If history has shown us anything in NASCAR, it's that it often repeats itself -- but sometimes it just doesn't.
So what to make of the Sprint Cup points standings after the first five races of this 2012 season? Who has displayed the staying power to remain in the top 10 or 12 for the remainder of the season, and who's fooling themselves -- and, for now, the rest of NASCAR nation?
First of all, a little history is indeed in order. Last season nine of the 12 drivers who were in the top 12 in points following the fifth race of the season made the Chase for the Sprint Cup. (The 12 Chasers last season included for the first time two wild cards -- Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin -- who would not have made it under previous formats and were not within the top 12 after five races).
In 2010, 10 of the 12 who headed up the standings after the first five races were good enough to stay within the top 12 by season's end. But in both 2009 and 2008, only seven of those who were top-12 after the first five events remained there at the end. (In 2007, it was back to 10 of 12).
So this year, who amongst the current top 12 will stay and who will go? Keeping in mind that two of the final top 12 will get in via the wild-card opportunity that is based on wins and not necessarily points, it's a fun little game to play at this point in the season.
This is a group that includes points leader Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards.
Harvick is currently second in points with Earnhardt, Stewart and Kenseth sitting in third, fourth and fifth, respectively, after Stewart's rain-shortened victory in Sunday's Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. So they're all in good position and already have shown the consistency required at all types of tracks to stay in the hunt over the long haul.
Despite a bad pit call Sunday that cost Hamlin what would have been a second-place finish once the rains came (he ended up settling for 11th instead), he's still seventh in points, has won one race already and has shown the speed he'll need.
Johnson presently sits eighth and Edwards 12th, but you've got to believe both have yet to kick it in the higher gear that both of their teams possess. When it's all said and done, they'll solidly make their ways into the Chase.
So for those keeping score at home, that already accounts for a total of eight of your Chasers.
This is where it gets tricky, and angry emailers are sure to have opposite opinions.
But when you look at those currently in the top 12, there are only a couple of names who seem out of place. Right now those names are Martin Truex Jr., currently sixth, and Paul Menard, who is 11th.
It's not like either of these guys have not flashed this kind of potential previously. Menard sat ninth in points in 2010 and seventh in 2011 after five races -- and made the Chase neither time. He went on to finish 23rd in 2010 and 17th last season. Until he proves otherwise, why should anyone believe this year will be any different?
Truex could be a different story. For one thing, he's actually made the Chase previously -- having done so in 2007 when he finished 11th in the final points standings. The following year he was hanging on in 12th after the fifth race, only to slide to 15th by season's end. But like Menard, Truex has only one career race victory -- and both need to prove they can win again before they'll be recognized as true Chase contenders.
ON THE BUBBLE
That leaves Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman, currently ninth and 10th in the points, as the bubble boys. Both are veterans in good equipment who therefore should make the Chase.
But they aren't locks.
Bowyer has looked surprisingly strong so far with an entirely new team at Michael Waltrip Racing, when most figured it might take him -- and them -- more time to get up to speed. The question is whether or not they can maintain their current Chase-like pace without hitting a few of the seemingly inevitable speed bumps most new teams have to endure.
As for Newman, yes, he's made the Chase in two of the past three seasons since joining Stewart-Haas Racing. But he's actually made it in just two of the past six seasons overall and, like Bowyer, needs to show a bit more consistency in getting to Victory Lane before he can be considered a Chase lock and a true championship contender. (Newman has three race wins over the past six-plus seasons; Bowyer has five in his Sprint Cup career over the same stretch).
The top names currently sitting on the wrong side of the top 12 -- some further out than others -- include none other than four-time champion Jeff Gordon (25th), Kyle Busch (14th), Jeff Burton (15th) and 2011 sensation Brad Keselowski (16th).
You've got to believe that either through a major surge in points or through the wild-card scenario where the top two in race wins who also remain within the top 20 in points after the 26-race cutoff make it, at least two and possibly three from this group will still make the Chase.
The true wild card in the bunch could end up being Kurt Busch, a former champion and perennial Chaser when he was with Penske Racing. He split ways with Penske at the end of last season, and knew life wouldn't be the same with underfunded Phoenix Racing. So the fact that he's currently 23rd in points is no surprise.
He's the one driver who truly could shock the racing world, though, in that Phoenix Racing traditionally fields strong cars in restrictor-plate races. Three of those remain. If the elder of the Busch brothers can win two of them and crawl within the top 20 in points, he could still make the Chase as a wild card in what would be a major upset.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Denny Hamlin
- Tony Stewart