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:
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,
"That proves the quality of the pit crew that we've got," said crew chief
The track position made the difference in the closing stages, with Johnson's lucky break giving him the cushion needed to hold off
"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."
"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
"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."
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.
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
"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.
"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