LAS VEGAS - The racing season still has nine months to go, but it's already crunch time for several teams.
Today's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway could help shape the playoff picture, even though there are 23 races until the playoffs start. A good finish can get teams back into the playoff hunt. A bad finish could put them in a deep hole.
Greg Biffle is one of the drivers who needs a good finish in today's main event (4:30 p.m., Fox-Ch. 54). So do Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Jeremy Mayfield. Five of last year's Chase for the Championship qualifiersare ranked 21st or worse.
All of them know the racing season is long. But they also know very little changes in the standings after the first month. Seven of the top 10 drivers after last year's race at Las Vegas went on to qualify for the Chase for the Championship.
"This sport is all about momentum," said Elliott Sadler, who starts today's race ranked 10th in the standings. "I think if you get behind at the beginning of the year you feel like you're climbing uphill all year long."
Biffle won the pole for today's race with a qualifying lap of 172.403 mph. After finishing 31st at the season-opening Daytona 500, Biffle led 168 of the first 218 laps at California. But engine failure in the final 100 miles relegated him to a 42nd-place finish and a 38th position in the Nextel Cup Series standings.
"You know what? Our whole team feels really, really good about (California) - like we won almost," Biffle said. "Spirits are high because the fact is that we have good race cars and we're running very well."
Tony Stewart led 28 laps at California before his engine blew up.
He finished last and must defend his series championship from the 22nd spot in the standings.
Unlike the others, Stewart isn't worried.
"With the way the point format is, we've got 24 weeks to get it done," Stewart said. "We don't have to worry if we're 600 points out as long as we're in the top 10. So you can have a disappointing day as far as your finishing position, but to me it was five times more important than the loss of the points was just knowing that we had a car that was competitive and that could run up front all day."
Stewart will start today's race from second.
Matt Kenseth won at California and is third in the rankings. A year ago he had to battle all summer to rebound from a slow start. He was one of only three drivers to move into the top 10 after the third race.
"It doesn't take the pressure off (to be in the top 10), but it's a big deal," he said. "I think getting started off on the right foot is important."
Carl Edwards (21st in standings), Kurt Busch (25th) and Jeremy Mayfield (29th) also hope to rally like Kenseth a year ago.
So does four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who's back in 15th place.