ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (AP) -- There was a time when nobody really gave the Winston Cup championship any thought until the second half of the season.
Now, drivers begin counting points from the season-opening Daytona 500.
That's why the Ford drivers who swept the top five spots in last Sunday's race are feeling pretty good heading into the Dura-Lube-Kmart 400 at North Carolina Speedway.
Dale Jarrett won NASCAR's biggest race, followed by Jeff Burton, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin.
''One race may not make or break your season, but it sure helps to get off to a good start,'' said Wallace, the 1989 series champion. ''If you get a good start right out of the box, you better work to build on that momentum.
''This sport now is about top-fives and consistency. You get that going and you're going to win some races. You keep that going and you're going to have a shot at the title.''
Wallace, who drives for Penske Racing South, has run strong over the years on the 1.017-mile Rockingham oval. His record includes five wins, 11 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes in 32 starts.
''Right now, the most important race in the whole wide world is Rockingham,'' Wallace said. ''Daytona was the first of the most important races, and it's over and done with.
''Now its Rockingham that rates the most important. And after that, there will be 32 more most important races to go. Some may carry more prestige. Some may pay more money. But at the end of the day, each and every one of them offer the exact same number of points.''
Martin, who won this race last year and has yet to win a championship, started the season in a deep hole the last two years after finishing 38th and 31st in Daytona.
''It is really nice to head into Rockingham and not be in a points deficit,'' Martin said. ''Rockingham has always been a good track for us, and we've needed it the last couple of years to overcome the bad luck we've had at Daytona.
''It is hard enough to win a Winston Cup championship as it is, but to start the season 31st or 38th in points certainly doesn't make it any easier.''
The General Motors teams have been complaining to NASCAR that Ford has an aerodynamic advantage. That argument looked pretty good in Daytona, but the Ford teams are saying any advantage they might have had in Daytona will likely disappear in Rockingham.
''This is a whole new ballgame,'' said Jarrett, who dominated the 500. ''Really, I think the Chevys and the Pontiacs ran pretty well in Daytona and just didn't work together enough to take advantage of it.
''At Rockingham, you don't need that kind of help. I'm sure NASCAR is keeping a close eye on things, and we'll just have to wait and see what happens.''
Meanwhile, NASCAR is making arrangements to take Jarrett's winning Taurus, the Pontiac Grand Prix of Ward Burton and the Chevrolet Monte Carlo of Mike Skinner to the wind tunnel in Marietta, Ga., for some testing.
''We're not going to let things get out of hand,'' said Kevin Triplett, NASCAR's director of operations.
Meanwhile, Jarrett, who continues to show the kind of consistency and power that carried him to a virtual runaway in the series standings last year, will head into the weekend as the favorite again.
He has yet to win in Rockingham, but Jarrett has been close numerous times.
In fact, his No. 88 Robert Yates Racing Ford has finished second in six of his last eight starts here.
''Surely, the law of averages is going to catch up,'' Jarrett said. ''If we keep running up front, eventually we're going to win in Rockingham.
''It's kind of funny, though. We always seem to start out really, really strong and, as the race goes on, somebody else invariably catches up and, in the end, we fade a little and they win. Somehow, we've got to figure out a way to keep that edge.''
Jeff Burton beat brother Ward in the race here last fall, with Jarrett fourth.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.