Perennial contenders fall behind after Daytona

Thursday, February 22, 2007
The leading cars of Kurt Busch (2) and Tony Stewart collided during the NASCAR Daytona 500 on Sunday. The crash sent Stewart to a 43rd-place finish, while Busch was 41st. (ROB SWEETEN ~ Associated Press)

But drivers know there's plenty of time to catch up.

Some of NASCAR's biggest stars left Daytona International Speedway in big holes.

Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth -- the past five Cup series champions -- wrecked in the season opener and finished well back in the points race. Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. had similar results.

This weekend, the five drivers have little momentum heading to California. They do have lots of hope, because only two of the last 27 Daytona 500 winners have claimed series titles.

"The season, in some people's minds, starts this weekend," said Johnson, who accomplished the rare feat of winning the Great American Race and the championship last season.

Others haven't been as fortunate.

Only four of the last 12 series champions even finished in the top 15 at Daytona. Stewart was last in 2002 but rebounded to win his first of two series titles; Ward Burton won the opener that year and ended up 25th in the standings.

"It's completely a clean slate," Earnhardt said. "You can't compare the two. Daytona is like a season of its own, and the superspeedway program is different than the rest of the tracks. So, we're not going out there feeling like we're in trouble in the points or worry about being in a big crash at Daytona.

"That was only the first race, and if we do what we know we can as a team, we'll be in the top 12 in points when the Chase begins."

Kenseth (27th), Earnhardt (32rd), Kurt Busch (41st), Johnson (39th) and Stewart (43rd) know they have ground to make up.

"We've always bounced back in a big way after Daytona, so I'm expecting nothing less this weekend," Kenseth said.

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