Luck was on Carl Edwards' side yesterday, as the backflipping Roush Fenway Racing star scored his third win in five races in yesterday's Kobalt Tools 500. Despite a disappointment in Phoenix and coming oh-so-close at Daytona, the man they call Cousin Carl takes plenty of momentum into the off week before Bristol.
Others weren't so lucky yesterday. Tony Stewart's pit mistake cost him the victory, while one can count Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch among the drivers who took losing turns on the roulette wheel.
So, whose odds of contending are getting better after Vegas, and whose are increasing? Let's have a look:
It's almost always the trendy pick these days to call the guy who wins the season finale of the previous year Jimmie Johnson's biggest threat for the title. But since winning the final two races of the season last year, Edwards has put up, much in the same way that Denny Hamlin did last year. A near-miss at Daytona, a pole at Phoenix, and the win at Vegas have Edwards flying as high as the Air Force Thunderbirds he took a ride in last week before the race.
Driving a Mobil 1 Chevrolet converted into a taxi cab may have been the highlight of Stewart's week, after running over an air wrench in mid-race put him at the tail end of the lead lap and arguably cost him the victory. But he put those taxi-driving skills to use and worked his way back up through the field to finish second and take a share of the points lead. Not a bad rebound at all.
Does this look good? No, not at all. Did it end well? Surprisingly. Busch's stroke of good luck on the weekend was not hitting anything during this spin, and he managed to rebound by coming home ninth. While it was a disappointment for the hometown hero, who holds this race on par with the Daytona 500, perspective matters. He's the only driver with top-10s in all three races this year, and next week he heads to Bristol, where he won his first career race nine years ago.
And, well, at least he wasn't his brother. The younger Busch has tasted victory at Vegas, but it just wasn't meant to be this time around, after his car caught fire. Ever tasted burnt Snickers? The misfortune dropped him 13 places in the standings, from first to 14th, but that's more owed to the fact that we're early enough in the season where things like that can still happen.
Daytona was a letdown, but with two fifth place finishes in the past two races, Newman's going to be just fine. The two-car operation at Stewart-Haas Racing is performing pretty well right now, and while neither Newman nor Tony Stewart has found victory lane just yet, it doesn't look like it's a long way off for either of them.
See that face? That's the face Paul Menard is making at all of his doubters right now. Yes, he's had hot starts before - last year among them - only to falter later in the season, but everything seems to be in place for him to finally break out at Richard Childress Racing. He came home 12th at Vegas.
The definition of a quietly successful race day is when nobody at Getty Images thinks to take your picture during the duration of the race, but you manage to come home with a top-10. That would be Denny Hamlin this week, who, despite evading cameras while on-track Sunday, ran seventh when all was said and done. Owing to his finishing position, points position (tied with Martin Truex Jr.), and his better luck than teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, we're ranking Hamlin lucky number seven.
Wait a second. You mean to tell me that Juan Montoya is fourth in points? Come on. You're joking, right? Is this CART? Are you sure? Are you sure this isn't CART? And a road course? Because, you know, Montoya had most of his CART wins on road courses. It's not? Are you sure? Well, huh. Crazy. Maybe the old chap will make the Chase again.
Not a great way to bring former full-time sponsor DuPont back into the racing world for Gordon this weekend, as scuffing the right side of the car after 193 laps sent Gordon home a disappointing 36th. But Vegas has never really been Gordon's track - not after hitting the inside wall in the Nicorette car a few years back. Maybe it's a sponsor thing. Maybe he needs the AARP on his car to keep up the magic. Hey, you never know.
The hardest name to type in the history of professional sports came home a somewhat disappointing 19th on Sunday, especially compared to teammate Marcos Ambrose's fourth place run. But Allmendinger still holds the edge in points, even as he dropped from fourth to ninth.
So, do they even run the normal Lowe's paint scheme anymore, or is it just going to be the Kobalt Tools car year-round? It's always interesting to me how the brands that sponsor the top drivers, in any form of motorsport, are in no way the top brands in their respective fields. You know, Kobalt Tools is no Craftsman. Target is no Wal-Mart. FedEx, unlike UPS, made me walk four miles to pick up a package in South Boston once because the stupid people in their help hotline refused to re-route it, even when they absolutely could have. But I digress. Johnson finished 16th and now sits on the edge of the Chase, in 12th.
You know, if team owner Michael Waltrip had told Truex to "get down on the track and do what you do" last year instead of this year, maybe he wouldn't have been 22nd in points in 2010. Things are much better this year - with a strong sixth place finish yesterday, Truex jumped nine spots in points to wind up seventh.
Two top-10s and a competitive run at Daytona? Not bad. Not bad at all. You know, one of these days, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is finally going to win a race. And when he does, I swear to god and the heavens above, the internet is going to break with rowdy Junior fans celebrating the end of their driver's winless streak. (Oh, and since I don't pre-plan these lists and honestly have no idea if Marcos Ambrose is going to show up later on, here's a picture with Marcos Ambrose in the background.)
Eh, what the hell. Ambrose came home fourth on Sunday and jumped 10 spots in the points, where he now sits 17th. Not a bad weekend for the outside pole-sitter.
Not much happened in the Sprint Cup Series race for Martin, so let's celebrate the fact that Martin won his record-extending 49th career Nationwide Series event on Saturday, taking the maiden win for Turner Motorsports when race leader Brad Keselowski blew a tire on the final lap. Martin continued pushing despite being short on fuel and his efforts paid off. As for Sprint Cup points, he's 11th.
Despite getting caught up in Kurt Busch's spin, Kahne rebounded to finish 14th and moved up two spots to 13th in the standings. It could have been much worse.
Well, it was fun while it lasted. Labonte is no longer in the Chase - he's now 15th in points, falling eight spots with a 24th-place run on Sunday, finishing exactly where he started. We all knew it wouldn't last after helping push Trevor Bayne to victory at Daytona, but hey, it was fun, right?
You can bet that Kenseth wanted to break his winless streak of over two years at Vegas, a track where the Roush Fenway Racing cars traditionally come on strong. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be for the polesitter, who came home 11th while teammate Carl Edwards took the glory. Still, Kenseth made his way up to 16th in points, and that's a start. At least he's not teammates David Ragan (26th) or Greg Biffle (31st), but he has a long way to go to match Edwards (third).
Championship hangover? Well, sort of. Harvick blew a motor at Daytona, finished fourth at Phoenix, and finished mid-pack at Vegas to place 20th in the standings, which is right about where a driver averaging a mid-pack finish should be. But there are still 23 races in which to get things sorted out after last year's championship performance (yes, I am old school, no, I don't believe in the Chase, yes, Harvick was the rightful champion, any questions, direct them to my inbox, please and thank you).
Theoretical Trevor Bayne points tally, through three races: Daytona (47) + Phoenix (4) + Las Vegas (24) = 75. This should have him tied for 18th in points right now. Or, if you're like me and realize that NASCAR solved all the wrong problems by changing the points and limiting drivers to scoring points in one series instead of shortening the schedule and limiting participation, 195 + 43 + 103 = 341. Sigh.
On that opinionated down note, enjoy the off weekend. We'll be back in two weeks to recap Bristol and re-rank 'em.