Watch these seven things unfold
Seven races into the season, seven predictions for the next seven-race stretch
1. The strategy of deferring dominance.
It will become increasingly clear that Jimmie Johnson is a lock for his fifth straight championship, but only if you're paying close attention. The dominance may not show in straight-up winning.
Chad Knaus' shenanigans for a season-long chess game may become more obvious. We've seen inklings already.
Take Knaus' gambit of forfeiting a virtual lock win at Martinsville on March 28 to run a de facto R&D test for the Hendrick team as a whole, and the 48 car specifically, with eyes on the fall race there -- and the Chase.
Call it deferred dominance. And we thought Bobby Fischer was good at thinking 14 or 15 moves ahead. Here's Knaus, thinking 20-plus races ahead.
Now to Johnson's role and the very marrow of winning championships: snatching the best possible finish out of circumstances that backfire.
For example: Knaus decided to go with four tires for the green-white-checkered at Phoenix last week, the same call made by crew chief Dave Rogers for front-running Kyle Busch.
But after both got snookered by teams that changed two tires, look at the difference: Busch restarted eighth and finished eighth. Johnson restarted seventh and finished third, by blasting his way through on the last two laps.
The great byproduct of the last two races is that Knaus and Johnson deflected attention from the No. 48. After winning three of the first five races, they wisely cooled it; they aren't making it obvious; they don't have NASCAR on their backs, looking for ways to slow them down.
As all these subtle tricks pile up in the second seven races, the lock on five straight will become obvious.
2. The jury will come in on the green-white-checkered.
The next seven-race span will be a watershed for the notion of multiple green-white-checkered finishes. Either fans will grow sick of it, like kids given too much ice cream, or they'll become insatiable addicts with higher and higher tolerances for fabricated action.
Either they'll wise up and see that this isn't racing but craps-shooting, where the first 499 miles or laps become as meaningless as anti-Chase people already think the first 26 races are, and where it really is more important to be lucky than good.
Or they'll demand more and more action, and NASCAR will have to come up with more and more gimmicks.
To stop insinuations such as Gordon's that NASCAR is maneuvering for green-white-checkered finishes, maybe NASCAR should promise three of them automatically. You complete regulation, then you run three two-lap sprints.
While they're at it, they might as well mandate four-wide restarts for the green-white-checkered. (I know, NHRA racers have already rejected the mad experiment of four-wide racing, but NASCAR is more despotic than the NHRA, so drivers would do what they're told.)
Beyond that, who knows? Maybe drivers could just gather in Victory Lane with all the car numbers on a roulette wheel, and Mike Helton could spin a ball -- round and round she goes; where she stops, nobody knows -- and the winner is David Stremme!
The next week Max Papis!
And the next Kevin Conway!
That would be parity, all right.
3. Jeff Gordon will win at least one race, maybe two or three.
The NASCAR adage usually meant for young drivers now applies to the veteran: When you keep putting yourself in the hunt for the win, week after week, the wins will start falling your way eventually.
Two races in a row, Gordon has lost on green-white-checkered restarts. And at Las Vegas in February, Gordon led the most laps before a two-tire final stop got him beaten by teammate Johnson and four tires.
Gordon's next win will tie him with Cale Yarborough for career wins at 83 and will immediately fuel the ongoing drama of Gordon's hunt for 84 to tie him with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, then 85, which would make him third all-time.
4. Denny Hamlin will continue to be hampered by his sore knee.
I'm no orthopedic surgeon, but I've been around enough NFL players over the years, watching their agonizing rehab over months and months, to doubt that Hamlin's anterior cruciate ligament will be just fine so soon after surgery.
True, NASCAR drivers aren't nearly as dependent on their knees as running backs, but there is the crucial matter of working the pedals.
This affects Hamlin's clutching leg, the left, and seriously affects his braking. He's traditionally a left-foot braker, and now he's hurting either way -- trying to brake with his hurting left, or switching to his awkward right.
Then there's the matter of his getting in and out of the car in pain.
5. Richard Childress Racing will win.
The RCR resurgence of early season -- Kevin Harvick easily could have won both Daytona and Fontana out of the gate -- has tapered off a bit, but largely because of bad circumstances.
At Martinsville, Jeff Burton had the strongest car late but was thwarted by a cut tire. At Phoenix, again he had the fastest car late, but he pitted out of his box and was penalized a lap.
And, it seems, the No. 33 of Clint Bowyer keeps hanging in, hanging in, persistently in the picture with the leaders in the middle stages of races.
So again, the adage about being in position to win, and the wins eventually falling your way, applies to the RCR trio as well as to Gordon.
6. Conspicuous spoiling, Part I.
Texas Motor Speedway will yield flashbacks to its wrecking-yard past this weekend.
It remains the weirdest 1.5-mile track on the tour with its abrupt transitions into, and off, the corners. Worst is that off Turns 2 and 4, you run out of banking before you're finished turning the car.
The plus side of the now-forsaken wings was that it was far easier to "catch" a squirrely car before it spun out. With the spoilers back, Kevin Harvick told reporters last week, he figures there'll be more spinouts.
With speeds significantly higher at Texas than at Phoenix, with drivers continuing to adjust to the spoilers, and with spinouts in the wrong places, the nightmare of multicar crashes could recur, a la TMS' early years.
Previously the biggest pileups seemed to occur entering the corners, but now they may happen coming off. Burton noted that in Charlotte testing with spoilers, the cars seemed stable on entry but loose on exit.
And the exits at Texas are each maddening in different ways: "The exit at Turn 2 gets very, very tight," Burton said. "The exit at Turn 4 gets very, very loose."
7. Conspicuous spoiling, Part II.
Talladega on April 25 will be a blast from the past, wilder and more competitive than in recent memory.
Put spoilers on the COT, the boxiest car that has run Talladega since the 1970s, and the slingshot pass should be back. That means individual drivers can pass on their own, without relying on the big aerodynamic shoves from drafting lines behind them.
Juan Pablo Montoya showed glimpses of the slingshot in the most recent restrictor-plate race, the Daytona 500. And that was with wings, not spoilers.
This time, the position-changing on every lap at Talladega could look like a high-speed kaleidoscope.
And all of this plays right into the skills of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who early in this decade won four in a row at Talladega with spoilers, and an uncanny ability to pass on his own with superior cars from the Dale Earnhardt Inc. stable that dominated the plate tracks.
If Junior can come out of the worse-than-usual melee, he'll get his drought-breaking win.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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