Bruce Martin
Tuesday February 26th, 2008

Although it's 60 miles from the center of the movie industry, Auto Club Speedway insists on promoting itself as "NASCAR's trip to Hollywood."

Instead, it has become NASCAR's Little Shop of Horrors.

Last February, it was cold weather. In September, it was brutal 106-degree temperatures that David Poole of the Charlotte Observer called "as hot as the face of the sun."

So why should this past weekend have been any different?

This time, it was rain, weepers and red flags that forced NASCAR to call it a night after an attempt to restart at 2 a.m. EST and try again Monday afternoon, with two races for the price of one.

For the Hendrick Motorsports California Boys, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, it was a chance to rally from disappointing finishes in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Johnson, who was strong in the middle portions of the race, finished second to Carl Edwards, while Gordon finished third in the 250-lap, 500-mile race. Johnson jumped 17 positions in the standings to eighth, while Gordon moved up 24 spots to 14th.

So with a race winner who looks like he was sent over from Central Casting in Edwards, two California drivers married to models finishing second and third and the emerging Kyle Busch in fourth, the two-day, marathon at California should give a truer indication of what to expect this season than the restrictor-plate style of the Daytona 500.

Here is a look at the leading men to keep an eye on this season:

Come searing heat, rain or weepers, nothing can keep Edwards from making his rounds at Fontana as he scored his second-straight Cup win at the track and the eighth win of his career.

With Ford's numbers dwindling in NASCAR, Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing give the nameplate something to brag about.

"Ford and Roush Fenway and all engineers, everyone has worked really hard, all of them have worked very hard this winter and it's paid off," Edwards said. "This is the reason we won this race is because of the preparations. I'm proud to be driving that car right now. It's a lot of fun.

"I told my guys that we've got them right where we got 'em. This is what we prepared for. The tougher it gets, the more competitive it is. If we had a 55-hour red flag, and we're still going to go out there and race as hard as possible. That's what we prepare for. That's what I prepare for; I enjoy that kind of stuff."

With this victory, Edwards is hopeful that Roush Fenway has not only closed the gap on Hendrick Motorsports, it might be a little ahead at this point in the season.

"I hope it's an indication that we've caught up with them," Edwards said. "They were still second and third. They were the guys to beat [Monday]. I hope that this is a sign that were up to their standards, to their level. believe we are."

"I know that last year I would not have traded my car in for one of theirs at any of the [Car of Tomorrow] races towards the end of the year. I thought we had the best car. Everyone knows, all the drivers know, for sure, it's what you're sitting in a lot of the times that makes that tiny little bit of difference. I'm proud to be driving this car. I'm proud of what [team owner] Jack Roush and [crew chief] Bob Osborne and all the engineers did last year when we saw how far behind we were."

"That reaction and the action that came after that is what got us here [Monday]."

If Edwards and Roush Fenway can find consistency this year, this might be the year he adds a Cup championship to his Busch (now Nationwide) Series title from last year.

Sorry Dale Earnhardt Jr., the two top drivers at Hendrick Motorsports remain two-time defending champion Johnson and four-time titleist Gordon.

"After coming out of Daytona with a rough finish, we definitely were hoping to get a solid one here [Monday], and we did," Gordon said. "We're happy to come home third and be running third. Then I blew up, the white flag came out right before the caution, I blew up off of turn two. So we were very fortunate to just finish this race."

Sometimes, luck plays a key role in who wins the championship and to get a lucky break this early in the season (Gordon's engine blew up just as the white flag flew to end the race under caution) could help his cause as he seeks that elusive fifth championship.

If the engine had failed before the leader took the white flag, it would have been a green-, white-, checkered-flag finish and Gordon would have dropped out of the race.

Instead, he was credited with third place, a result that moves him up in the standings.

For Johnson, Sunday's race gives him cause for optimism at Las Vegas.

"I'm excited to take what we learned [Monday], actually the last four or five days we've been here, seems like a month we've been here, take that to Vegas and improve on it," Johnson said. "Good rebound from Daytona. We'll roll on."

Take a good look at the standings in all three of NASCAR's top divisions because they all share one thing in common: Kyle Busch. He is the leader in the Sprint Cup and Craftsman Truck Series and he is second to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart in the Nationwide standings after two events.

That's a remarkable achievement, even for this early in the year for the same driver to be near the front of all three circuits as he heads for a trip to his hometown of Las Vegas.

Busch finished fourth in a Toyota in the California Cup race, was second to Stewart in Monday's Nationwide race and was the winner of Saturday's NCTS race.

"The biggest thing we try to do is to get results and get wins -- that is the optimum thing that you want to do it to get your team to victory lane," Busch said. "We weren't able to capitalize on that [Monday] with either car, but the truck series we were able to. It just means that either I have more work to do or whatever to get my stuff a little bit better to get to victory lane. It's been a good weekend for me. You can't really complain coming out of two weekends and all six finishes in the top-five."

The addition of Busch has elevated the already-competitive JGR program which already included two-time Cup champion Stewart and title contender Denny Hamlin.

"I think if you ask Tony that, he already felt like me coming on board was going to elevate Joe Gibbs Racing and make those guys have to drive harder," Busch said. "For me, I just go out there and do what my car can do. If it's a 20th place car, then I finish 20th on those days and if it's a 30th place car then I normally wreck it. With a top-five car, I can finish up there and on a bad day, then it's a top-10."

Busch isn't letting himself get carried away about being the points leader in two series, however. After all, it's only February and the season doesn't end until it's nearly Thanksgiving.

"It doesn't mean much right here in California," Busch said. "If the championship was paid for -- 'Woo hoo, yeah for us.' -- but we've still got 33 weeks left in this deal.

"We'll take it now and hopefully hold on to it for a while and keep battling with the [Nos.] 24 [Gordon], 48 [Johnson] -- we know they'll come back strong in the points. There's going to be some other contenders, too."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.