Tom Bowles
Monday February 22nd, 2010

One week after a pothole sunk the Daytona 500, NASCAR caught a break after a rainstorm just missed California's 2-mile oval Sunday. That led to a double bonus, with the race not only ending on time but the threat of raindrops leaving drivers on pins and needles throughout -- creating a rare Hollywood action thriller at a track known for its share of boring races. But when the smoke cleared after 500 miles, this movie script ended with an all-too-familiar face up front.

That's where we'll start on this list of five things to take from NASCAR's first unrestricted race of the season:

1. Like it or not, Jimmie Johnson's still the man to beat. The reigning champ has a history of starting off the regular season flat, finishing 27th or worse in his last four Daytona 500s. But the No. 48 team makes a living out of bouncing back from adversity, which is why it's no surprise that he led a race-high 101 laps in claiming the victory in race No. 2.

While Johnson's car was fast all day, the key to his win came during green flag pit stops with 25 laps remaining. As the No. 48 pulled in, Brad Keselowski's spin brought out the yellow flag as the team was changing tires, making it a race to the pit exit line between Johnson and race leader Jeff Burton to stay on the lead lap. The battle between the two was so close NASCAR initially left Johnson trapped a lap down behind the pace car, looking like the victim of an untimely caution. But replays eventually showed the No. 48 left pit road inches ahead, putting him not just back with the leaders but restarting first when everyone else had to stop for tires.

"That proves the quality of the pit crew that we've got," said crew chief Chad Knaus. "[What a] heads-up by Jimmie to not panic and do what he needed to do. Obviously, it was a close thing, but we felt confident we could get out there in front of those guys."

The track position made the difference in the closing stages, with Johnson's lucky break giving him the cushion needed to hold off Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, both of whom marveled at the type of good fortune that always seems to break the way of the No. 48.

"Jimmie is a good friend of mine, but there's no way of getting around how lucky they are," Harvick said. "They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their [butt]. I mean, there's no way to get around that."

Johnson and Knaus laughed off that seemingly constant "X Factor" when asked later on. In truth, their car would have been a contender regardless of what happened, proof they've picked up right where they left off in 2009. But on a day where the driver of the No. 48 picked up his 48th career victory, there were plenty of superstitious people to go around.

"We don't believe a heck of a lot in luck," said Knaus. "But, you know, if it's out there, we'll take it."

2. Richard Childress Racing is ready to rumble in 2010. Just three months after ending a nightmare season, owner Richard Childress has started 2010 stronger than ever. Harvick and Burton finished second and third, respectively, with Harvick taking over the point lead by 19 over teammate Clint Bowyer. In just two weeks, the three Childress cars have combined to lead 153 laps -- nearly half the total they led in all 36 races last year.

"We're happy we have a shot," said Harvick after falling just short of having his winless streak snapped at 72 races. "It leaves that sour taste in your mouth when you don't win, and you want to go back and win again."

Two things seem to be keying RCR's sudden resurgence -- power and people. You can't win without a little extra zip under that hood, and the Earnhardt Childress engines clearly have the best straightaway speed of all cars on track.

"They found some significant gains in the horsepower area [in the offseason]," said a rival crew chief (Knaus) Sunday. "That's obvious."

But perhaps the bigger boost has come through better chemistry, achieved by simply shuffling the personnel deck within their shop. Burton's former crew chief Scott Miller moved to Director of Competition in October, immediately heading up a reorganization that included paring down RCR's lineup from four cars to three. One less team has led to a tighter focus inside the shop, while replacement Todd Berrier has clicked instantaneously with Burton -- in six races together, they have yet to finish outside the top 10 while scoring more points than anyone else.

"I had quite a bit of confidence coming in [to 2010]," Burton said Sunday. "I expected to run well."

Now, the key is to keep the momentum going as the powerhouse teams Hendrick, Roush, and Gibbs regroup and make their own charge over the next few weeks.

"That's going to be the thing that will be the most challenging for us," said Harvick, worried about the upcoming transition to a rear spoiler for all Cup cars at the end of March. "It's not catching up. We did that. It's just getting in front of everybody else."

3. NASCAR is getting tough on speeding. Garage talk before this season was that the sport was going to get tougher on pit road, especially in light of complaints the five mile-per-hour "grace period" for going over the limit allows some drivers to get away with murder. Officials made a statement Sunday by issuing five penalties for speeding, including to contending drivers Juan Pablo Montoya, Harvick, and Burton. The latter two were able to work their way back through the pack, but not before paying the price and pulling some risky moves in traffic.

No one disagreed with NASCAR's rulings, but some were surprised at how quickly the penalties reigned down. At this rate, don't be surprised if that black flag costs someone a win in the next month -- driving home the message that you better be sticking to the speed limit down pit lane.

4. Dale Jr.'s still got a long ways to go to be a weekly contender again. After a last-gasp charge from 10th to 2nd at Daytona, NASCAR's Most Popular Driver was hoping to shed his yearlong slump for good this weekend. Instead, it was the same old problems wreaking havoc with the No. 88 car, with Earnhardt never so much as sniffing the top 10 while clearly performing at a level below his three teammates.

Then, the same mechanical failures that always seem to dog the No. 88 (apart from anyone else at Hendrick) reared their ugly head. A broken axle in the last 100 laps led to lengthy repairs on pit road, leaving Earnhardt 32nd and his confidence back at 2009 levels of frustration/despair. What's worse, the communication with crew chief Lance McGrew seemed off, with the embarrassment of McGrew asking his crew whether they had an axle on pit road. With the detail-oriented system Hendrick has in place, just even having to ask that question would be grounds for dismissal on the pit box of the No. 48.

"I can't build the cars," Earnhardt said in a huff after the race. "What do you want me to do? I just drive them. Something's going on there where we're chewing that stuff up and tearing it up. We've got to figure out why that's happening."

Now, Earnhardt heads to Vegas 16th in the early standings, desperate to show his talents haven't been "restricted" to those plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega. A confidence boost in the next two weeks there and at Atlanta -- both intermediate ovals like California -- will be crucial to keep his 2010 season from going down the same tragic path as 2009.

5. It's never good to be a trendy preseason pick. It's not as bad as the SI cover jinx, but when the NASCAR media has their eye on you -- watch out. This year, Denny Hamlin was the trendy preseason selection to unseat Johnson for his fifth title. So what has he done the first two weeks? Run 17th and 29th while leading just seven laps.

"We need some Las Vegas luck on or side," he said, hoping for a turnaround next Sunday. But he also needs to tone down his aggression. Since a wreck in the opening day of practice at Speedweeks, Hamlin's been a bit of a wild man on track, with drivers finding him such a pain at Daytona he ended that race without anyone to draft with. This Sunday, pushing too hard too early came back to bite him again, as an ill-advised move to go four-wide on a restart cut down a tire and left him limping to pit road.

Hamlin should be reminded that Carl Edwards had a similar disastrous start last season after his No. 99 Ford ended 2008 on par with Johnson. He never recovered, going winless and struggling to 11th in points -- not exactly the shining example the No. 11 Toyota team wants to follow.

Underdog Shoutout of the Week: How about Mike Bliss in the No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Toyota? While several other underfunded teams start and parked, TBR's unsponsored car not only went the distance but spent most of those 500 miles on the lead lap. Bliss brought the car home 22nd, on the lead lap, for the second-year team's best ever finish on an unrestricted track.

Have some thoughts on the race? Email Tom at tbowles81@yahoo.com, and your question or comment might pop up on his SI Mailbag column this Tuesday.

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