The first off-weekend of NASCAR's season wasn't a down time by any means. Between the ongoing Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski fallout and most teams being involved in some serious testing, the time off from racing went by in a hurry.
Things will kick into high gear this weekend with the first of back-to-back short-track races at Bristol Motor Speedway, followed by a trip to tiny Martinsville Speedway. With four races in the books, there are many questions to be answered as the Sprint Cup Series races through March:
What was learned at the Talladega test?
This week's test session at mammoth Talladega Superspeedway will help NASCAR determine what the rules package will look like when the series rolls back to the Alabama track in late April. By then, the Sprint Cup car will have lost its rear wing in favor of a spoiler, and NASCAR will have decided exactly what size restrictor plate to implement.
If Tuesday's test speeds are any indication, the plate will be a lot smaller than the one used in the session, which saw drafting speeds climb as high as 212 mph. While throttle response was a big factor in using a larger plate at Daytona, it's not as much a factor at Talladega, which has a surface with more grip than the worn-out layout of its sister track. So look for a smaller plate and more manageable speeds closer to the 200-mph mark when the Aaron's 499 come up on April 25.
How much will the spoiler change the racing?
|Denny Hamlin needs to get things going before it might be too late. (Getty Images)|
While only 24 drivers took part in the Talladega session, look for more than 50 to show up in Charlotte to put the spoiler through its paces on a track that is more similar in nature to the bulk of speedways on the schedule. The wing will end its existence after Sunday's race in Bristol with the spoiler era beginning at Martinsville.
Will the Keselowski-Edwards incident affect racing going forward?
At first blush, it would appear NASCAR not stepping in to punish Edwards more for his actions in Atlanta is a message that anything goes. On the other hand, there might be more of a heightened sense from the sanctioning body of ensuring no one does cross the line. It will be tough to tell the next two weeks at Bristol and Martinsville, since short-track racing is the most physical on the schedule. But I would expect some extra pushing and shoving, as well as a few dramatic moments, when Edwards and Keselowski find themselves running together on the track.
Can RCR continue its resurgence?
If anyone has closed the gap on Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports' dominance, it's the Richard Childress Racing team. All three of its drivers are in the top 10 in the points standings, with Kevin Harvick leading the series after four races. Johnson is not particularly good at Bristol, while all three RCR drivers excel at the Tennessee short track. On the other hand, Johnson and Hendrick have owned Martinsville. RCR? Not so much.
The next two weeks might not be the final indicator of whether Childress' team can make inroads on Johnson's run to another title, but all signs point to the 48 having his hands full more this year than in the previous three seasons.
Who needs to step things up?
We're still a long way from setting the Chase field, but several drivers need to correct themselves after stumbling out of the gate. Denny Hamlin tops this list, and the preseason favorite by many to unseat Johnson as the champion finds himself 22nd in the standings. Bristol may be the cure for Hamlin, who has four straight top 10 finishes there and is looking for his third consecutive top five run.
Juan Pablo Montoya -- 21st in the standings -- has a lot of ground to make up as he tries for a repeat appearance in the Chase. And lost in the Edwards controversy is the fact that he is still winless since November 2008 and has started the year off without a top five.
Sunday's race in Bristol is also the last time using the 2009 points standings and the top 35 starting spots that go along with those points. This year's standings go into play at race No. 6 in Martinsville, and the likes of Keselowski, Boris Said, Robby Gordon and David Gilliland could be forced to qualify in on speed unless they can maintain their spot within the cut-off this weekend.