Monday March 2nd, 2009

Observations from Sunday's Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, race No. 3 of 2009:

1. Kyle Busch (finally) won his first race of 2009.

Busch was due. He likely would have won the Daytona 500 if not for the late-race Big One that took him out of contention, and last weekend he became the first driver in NASCAR history to take the checkered flag in a Craftsman truck race and a Nationwide race on the same day. Busch, 23, has been so impressive this season that Jeff Gordon, a four-time series champion, has been telling reporters lately that Busch has more talent right now than he's ever had. That, race fans, is quite a statement.

Busch won the pole for Sunday's race, but was forced to start in the back of the field after changing his engine. Once the green flag dropped, he showed great patience, steadily passing cars. Then he and his crew chief Steve Addington kept finding more speed in their No. 18 Camry by making subtle adjustments during pit stops; over the last 50 miles of the race no one could catch Busch.

This is all well and good, but Busch knows better than anyone that his season will be judged not by what happens in the spring and summer but by what transpires in the fall. For three straight years Busch has fallen apart in the Chase. He and Addington need to figure out how to peak in October, just like Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus have done since 2006. Still, this could win could portend big things for this team. After all, four of the last eight victors in Vegas have gone on to win the Cup.

2. Jimmie Johnson is still the driver to beat for the championship.

Many eyebrows were raised last week when Johnson became progressively slower at Fontana. As expected, he charged out to the lead, but then as night fell over California and track conditions changed, Johnson dropped back in the field. Johnson and Knaus tried to tinker with the setup on the No. 48 Chevy, but they lost speed over the final 200 miles of the race and finished ninth.

Why was this such a big deal? Because it has been blue-moon rare over the last three years for this duo to fade in the latter part of a race. So on Sunday Johnson and Knaus wanted to show that what happened in California was an aberration rather than the start of a trend. Well, mission accomplished -- sort of. Johnson did once again fade on Sunday, but it had nothing to do with the quality of his racecar. Late in the race Johnson overshot his pit box and lost valuable track position. Then, with the laps winding down, he lost control of his No. 48 Chevy and smacked the wall in a single-car crash. The end result was a 24th place finish.

But overall I think this was a positive day for Johnson and Knaus. Last year at Vegas they were a full two seconds off the lap times of Carl Edwards, who won the race. But this year they clearly had the fastest car in the field for the majority of the afternoon. Mark this down: It won't be long until this team reaches Victory Lane.

3. Matt Kenseth didn't make history.

No driver in the history of NASCAR has ever won the first three races of the season. Kenseth had a chance to do just that on Sunday after taking the checkered flags at Daytona and Fontana. But not even ten minutes into the race the engine blew in his No. 17 Ford, forcing him into the garage and causing him to finish 43rd --- just the second time in his 10-year Cup career that he's came in dead last in a race. Kenseth had worried all weekend about his engine. Because of the high-speeds that Las Vegas Motor Speedway produces, the engines operate at high RPMs, which puts them under sustained stress. Kenseth only ran about 40 practice laps on Saturday, hoping to conserve his engine. But that plan went up in smoke on Lap 7 when Kenseth suffered his first engine failure in two years.

This was the first time that first-year crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, didn't reach Victory Lane with Kenseth. These two have been the No. 1 story in NASCAR over the first three weeks. Now it will be interesting to see how they rebound from their first bout of adversity together next Sunday in Atlanta, where Kenseth has four top-five finishes in his last five starts.

4. Jeff Gordon had another solid day.

After three weeks of the 2009 season, Gordon is your clubhouse leader in the points. For the second straight week, he had a car capable of winning, but late in the race, he entered pit road too fast, locked up his brakes and wound up blowing a tire, costing him a shot at the W. Still, he finished sixth and now holds an 18-point lead in the standings over Clint Bowyer.

But this leads us to our final lesson...

5. The standings mean nothing right now.

If you asked 100 objective crew guys in the garage if Dave Reutimann (currently fifth in points), Bobby Labonte (10th) or Michael Waltrip (12th) will make the Chase this season, you'd get the same answer 100 times: No way.

The standings are skewed right now, but a sense of order should come over the next few weeks when the haves in the sport begin to separate themselves from the have-nots. After all, it's very, very hard for long-shots to come up with top-10 finishes at the next three tracks on the schedule: Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway.

But it wouldn't be surprising if the leader in the points three races from now is the same guy who's currently on top. Because the more people I talk to, the more I hear that Gordon is going to do something special this season.

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