Falling behind early can have serious consequences
Four races into the year is always way too soon to start counting points, but it's never too soon to put some pressure on guys lagging.
Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and others all dwell outside the top 20. While that keeps them within a 400-point range of first place, and, obviously, with ample time to make a move upward, the heat is on.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't among that group this year. In fact, he's just 20 points outside the top five. But he's pulled up the rear on the start to seasons before.
"You can come back," he said. "I mean, I've had some crappy starts to some seasons and come back and finished in the top five. You can still do it. I mean, you've got some strong teams out there."
Among them, last year's co-runners up. Greg Biffle, by virtue of more victories, got the nod for finishing second in points last season. This year, he's 21st and 296 points out. He sums up the attitude of all those hoping to climb back into the thick of things best: realistically optimistic and hopeful.
"We're looking for some solid top-five finishes and to make up some ground in the points during the next few weeks," he said, "and I think we can definitely get it done."
Adds Edwards' crew chief Bob Osborne: "Our focus is to come out of Bristol with a top-10 finish and hopefully move up in the points a little. The Office Depot team is taking it one week at a time, not focusing on the short run, but the entire season."
The Chase begins in 22 races, so it's nowhere near time to panic. But everyone agrees that the sooner you make up the ground, the less stress and pressure you put on the team and driver.
"You just need to get that one strong finish and finally break through," Joe Nemechek said. "Things can turn around fast."
Tony Stewart, who finished last at California and followed it up the next week with a sub-20 finish, was as low as 22nd in the points. He's climbed back up to 12th in just two races -- proof that points position matters little right now when drivers can gain and lose ground so quickly. In his mind, he's got the 10 guys he's worried about in mind and whether they're 20th or 10th right now matters little.
"With this format you worry about the guys you think are going to be in the top 10," he said. "There are guys you think you need to worry about and there are guys you don't think you have to worry about. But you can never write anybody off -- not until you get past the 26th race weekend and you know who's in and who's out."
Many of those usual suspects are already among the top 10. For instance, Jimmie Johnson -- a mainstay among the top 10 since joining the circuit in 2002 -- is right there at the top. Mark Martin is just three drivers back.
And then there's Jeff Gordon and Junior, who missed the Chase last season but are back among the leaders.
"When we missed the Chase, it gave us the opportunity to try something major," Gordon said. "If that change didn't work, it wouldn't hurt us in the points because we weren't racing for a championship. But we made gains toward the end of last year that have carried over to this year."
While Gordon's happy to be back among the elite, it's just four races in and way too early to feel secure.
"It's a long season, even just to [the 26th race]," he said.
Plenty of time to gain, and plenty of time to lose, spots.
"I would say it's too early to speak about points unless the team was 35th to 40th," Busch said. "You've got to be in the top 35, and right now we have no problem with that. Once we go to Talladega [April 30], that's usually where you want to see your momentum pick up, and if you're in the top 15 in points you're sitting pretty."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.