Just in case you didn’t realize it, Sunday’s Pocono 400 was a preview of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the top two finishers at Pocono Raceway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski, will battle for the championship.
But the race did underscore the clear superiority of Hendrick Motorsports (and affiliated teams) and Team Penske, the two organizations that are light years ahead of the competition in a sport where light years are measured in hundredths of a second.
The Pocono 400 also suggested that the championship battle could well come down to a battle between Hendrick engines on the one hand and Roush Yates power plants on the other. Fourteen races into the season, those two engine builders have demonstrated a clear horsepower edge.
Cars with Hendrick Chevrolet power under the hood have won eight of the first 14 races—Kevin Harvick (2), Jimmie Johnson (2), Dale Earnhardt J. (2) and Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch one each.
Cars equipped with Roush Yates Ford power have won four—Joey Logano (2) and Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards one each.
Penske teammates Keselowski and Logano have combined for three poles and 12 front-row starts in 14 races, indisputable proof that their cars are fast.
Naysayers will point out that there are 12 weeks left in the Sprint Cup regular season and 10 more races in the Chase after that, leaving teams that are behind in refining their performance under NASCAR’s new rules package plenty of time to catch up.
After all, there are thousands of miles yet to be covered during testing, countless hours of simulations to be run and dozens of new ideas to try.
Unfortunately for the teams that are behind, the new dynamic in Sprint Cup racing—specifically, the way drivers now qualify for the Chase—suggests that teams that have an edge now are more likely than in years past to maintain that advantage throughout the season.
Why? Because there’s no longer any incentive whatsoever to stick with a pat hand and try to rack up points before the Chase starts.
With each passing week, the likelihood increases that all drivers with at least one victory will qualify for the Chase. Accordingly, teams with a win in the bank can be much more aggressive with their setups and engine packages as they explore the performance limits of the new rules.
That means the excellent results Hendrick and Penske are enjoying are likely to get better, even as other are chasing them and likewise improving.
The chances of a team waking up during the Chase and winning the championship aren’t nearly as great as they were back in 2011, when Tony Stewart won five of the last 10 races after going winless in the first 26.
Because there’s no points racing to inhibit continued development, the teams that have a head start now are likely to be the teams fighting for the championship at the end of the year.
That’s why the 1-2 finish for Earnhardt and Keselowski can serve as an omen for the Chase. At this point, there’s simply no reason for either Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske to stop experimenting and let other organizations achieve parity.
The Pocono 400 also reminded us of something else. No matter how strong a team may be, and no matter how dominant a car might seem, a small random event—a hot dog wrapper partially obstructing the grille opening, for instance—can still spoil the best-laid plans, even to the point of determining who the next Sprint Cup champion might be.