Friday March 4th, 2011

He's been strangely quiet so far this season, with an average starting position of 25.5 and a finishing position of just 15th through two races. Jimmie Johnson led 19 laps at Phoenix last Sunday afternoon, but he couldn't match the speed of Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch and wound up third. Now, as the circuit heads to Las Vegas this weekend, Johnson, the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion, the man who everyone in NASCAR clearly is chasing, is 12th in the standings.

"Everyone is tired of us winning," Johnson said this offseason. "It's going to be a very good year. We can all sit here and get fired up and get quotes to start the season, but I'd say come Vegas or maybe after Vegas we can start passing out report cards to see who did what over the offseason."

Indeed, when it comes to contending for the championship, Vegas, not Daytona, is the key early-season race. Why? Because while the Daytona 500 is the most prestigious event on the NASCAR calendar, it means little in deciding who wins the championship. Daytona, after all, is a restrictor-plate track and there's only one of those venues in the Chase. Las Vegas Motor Speedway, other the hand, is a 1.5-mile track, and five of the 10 Chase races take place at these intermediate-length ovals.

There's also this: If a driver runs well at Vegas, it often portends big things. Five of the last 10 drivers who won the championship took the checkers at Vegas. Here -- like at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August and at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November -- the cream generally rises, which is why I'm picking Johnson to reach Victory Lane on Sunday.

In nine Cup starts in the City of Sin, Johnson has four wins. He's led laps at the track in every start except one (2008) and, during his title run, he's always performed at his best on these intermediate-length ovals, which have been, in retrospect, the key to his five consecutive titles.

Watch Johnson closely this weekend. The last time he was on a 1.5-mile oval, at Homestead in November, he authored a flawless race as he came from behind to beat Denny Hamlin for the title. Expect a similar performance on Sunday.

Here are four other drivers I'll be watching closely when the green flag flies:

1. Carl Edwards

Edwards, to me, is Johnson's No. 1 threat this season. Like Johnson, Edwards excels on the intermediates. In six starts at Vegas, Edwards has one win and an average finish of 12.7.

But remember: Edwards won the last two races of 2010 (one of which was on an intermediate) and he firmly believes that he and his crew chief, Bob Osborne, have found something in the setup of their No. 99 Ford that makes them a tick faster than the rest of the field. He certainly had the fastest car last Sunday at Phoenix, but got caught up in an early wreck and finished 28th. This weekend he'll be driving a brand new race car that Osborne spent an entire offseason preparing. Expect this duo to be very, very fast on Sunday.

2. Jeff Gordon

Gordon freely admits that his crash at Las Vegas in 2008 was one of the worst of his career. Back then he spun and then hit an inside retaining wall, which wasn't protected with a SAFER barrier, head-on at about 160 mph. It was horrifying-looking wreck, but Gordon walked away.

Yet that wreck and several other nasty accidents that Gordon has experienced in recent years have raised a question: Have they caused Gordon, 39, to lose his edge? He seemed to answer that emphatically last Sunday at Phoenix, where he passed Kyle Busch late to win his first race since 2009.

Can Gordon reach Victory Lane in back-to-back weeks? That's something he hasn't done since the fall of 2007.

3. Kevin Harvick

Harvick, who scored more points than any other driver over the course of the 36-race season in 2010 but finished third in the Chase, got off to a sluggish start. He blew an engine early at Daytona and came in 42nd in the Great American Race. Yet he rebounded nicely last week with a solid fourth-place run at Phoenix.

But here's the question for Harvick and all of the other Richard Childress Racing Chevys: Do the cars have the straight-line speed to out-run the likes of Johnson and the other drivers from Hendrick Motorsports? Harvick didn't last year and it certainly didn't look like he did last week at PIR. I spent a lot of time with Harvick this offseason, and he said in no way was he at a mechanical disadvantage to anyone in the sport. Will he feel the same way late Sunday afternoon after this tone-setting race is over?

4. Kyle Busch

After two races Busch, a Las Vegas native, is atop the points standings. He came in eighth at Daytona and second at Phoenix. So far this season Busch has displayed patience behind the wheel and sound judgment. He has frequently been his own worst enemy over the years when he's allowed his emotions to get the best of him in the heat of the moment, but not so this year.

Busch won from the pole at Vegas in 2009. Given the way he's running, it would surprise no one in the garage if the events of this weekend wind up mirroring what transpired at the track two years ago.

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