LOUDON, N.H. - No one questions the need for a strong start in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but it appears that winning during NASCAR's 10-race playoff has increasingly become a priority.
Jeff Gordon, who led the series standings for most of the first 26 races last season, averaged slightly better than a fifth-place finish in the final 10 races and still came away empty-handed.
The lesson? It takes more than consistently good finishes to win the title.
Gordon won twice in the final 10 races, but his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, won four times and came from behind to win his second consecutive series championship.
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If that scenario holds true again this season, the winner in Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway could be in prime position to win the championship.
There's one caveat, however.
Since the Chase format's inception in 2004, only one winner of the Chase's first race - Kurt Busch in the inaugural season - has gone on to win the championship. No one else has finished better than third.
"With those stats, I hope I don't win Sunday," Greg Biffle joked. "It's always nice to be in victory lane, but we're going to do what we can and certainly we want to get off to a good start, and certainly this weekend so far we're off to a pretty good start."
Biffle, who enters the Chase seeded ninth, said Gordon's inability to win the championship with fewer wins last season has altered priorities for other drivers this season.
"We see Jeff Gordon have a five-point-some average and didn't win the title, so that gives you an idea of how tough this thing has become, and this new car. The new car has certainly tightened the field up," Biffle said.
"The reality is you're going to have to be winning races. I wouldn't say you have to win races, but you're going to have to finish better than fifth."
Clint Bowyer entered the Chase last season without a victory, but his victory in the Chase opener at New Hampshire not only was the first of his career, it also helped propel him into the thick of the championship picture.
"The Chase, the hardest part of it seems to be the last month and a half leading into (it) aren't good race tracks for us," Bowyer said. "If you look at them, our track record is not good there and we struggled to get in the Chase because of it.
"Once you get in the Chase, if you look at the first three races, I mean, here, we always run well here. Dover, we always run well at Dover. Kansas. Both times we have been there, we have led, almost won last year.
"Just three very good tracks that get things started off right."
Johnson, for the time being, is unwilling to declare winning races a priority for the Chase, but admits it's likely considering how well the top-three drivers have performed this season.
"We're all preparing for the worst. I think we're all talking about how you need to win races. Chances are that's going to be the case, especially with so many guys running well," Johnson said.
"I feel good about where we're at. I'm excited about what we've learned as a company and as the No. 48 car and the strength we have as the No. 48 team and the confidence we all have in one another.
"I really feel that we have all the stuff there to be competitive and we just have to get racing and see where we fit in and where luck falls into place and how things play out."