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Edwards shows why he's a Cup contender; Ambrose, Patrick arrive

Jimmie Johnson floated it. Carl Edwards didn't want anything to do with it. He'd crumbled under the burden as the next fashionable challenger to Johnson's ever-increasing championship run in 2009. So Edwards asked not to be picked "for a damn thing" when told this winter that the five-time defending series champion considered him his biggest obstacle.

Edwards, who finished 11th in points in a winless 2009, may not wish to think about such things, especially 23 races removed from the Chase for the Championship when performance matters most. But with a victory on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he's begun to display an ability to thrive under the weight of the loftiest of expectations.

And that is the most important of five things we learned at Las Vegas.

1. Carl Edwards is ready to contend for a first Sprint Cup championship. Since snapping a 70-race winless streak in claiming the final two events of the 2010 season, the 31-year-old former Nationwide Series champion has won three of his last five Sprint Cup races and finished second in the Daytona 500. His No. 99 Ford won the pole last week at Phoenix and was one of the spriest cars on the track until it was ruined by an accident with Kyle Busch that sent it into the wall and to a 28th-place finish.

If Ford's new FR9 engine remains as competitive against Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota as since its full implementation -- with Trevor Bayne's victory in the Daytona 500, Ford has won four of the last five Sprint Cup races -- Edwards could be primed to reel off another season like 2008, when he won a series-high nine races and finished second in points (by 69) to Johnson.

"It's way too early for us to start thinking championship," said Edwards, who improved nine spots to third in driver points on Sunday. "We've got to keep our eye on the ball; we can't make a misstep, we can't squander the opportunities now that we're running better than we did last year. But it certainly feels more like 2008, even better."

2. Maybe the "new" Kyle Busch has finally arrived, albeit a year overdue. The ultimately talented but flawed 25-year-old was supposed to develop the last piece of his championship persona in 2010: mental and emotional composure. A winner of 19 Sprint Cup, 44 Nationwide and 25 truck series races in parts of nine seasons, Busch had flamed out in the Chase repeatedly, partly because of mechanical issues and partly because of how he handled them. Busch required a mid-race scolding from crew chief Dave Rogers during the Chase last season after directing an obscene gesture toward an official that ultimately cost him laps and $25,000 in penalties. Rogers' plea of "You're costing us," over the team radio became the embodiment of all Busch still needed to address before stopping the slow bleed of his prime years.

Busch said last season after the incident, "there is a fire that has helped me to win the races that I've been able to win, but it's also cost me in some other times. I haven't learned exactly everything that I've wanted to learn yet about being able to control my emotions," but added, "I'd have to disagree 100 percent" that his demeanor cost him Cup titles ... because he won the 2009 Nationwide title "as the same person I am."

That person seems different so far this season, at least publicly. Busch has had multiple opportunities to revert to his sometimes boorish ways. But he apologized after his incident with Edwards last week. He remained calm after a tire failed, sending him into the wall Sunday. He was measured and analytical when an engine failure on Lap 108 resigned him to a 38th-place finish and a loss of the points lead. He even used the word "ka-blooey."

Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart each became more diplomatic after becoming team owners. Perhaps Busch, who has fielded entries in the NASCAR trucks series since last season, has finally taken their cue. The sport will have lost one of the unbridled characters it has so attempted to promote the past few seasons, but it may gain a new championship contender.

3. Marcos Ambrose, oval racer, variable. The Tasmanian is slowly becoming more than a road course threat, finishing fourth at Las Vegas on the type of 1.5-mile circuit that comprises much of the Sprint Cup schedule. Ambrose, who lost a win on the Sonoma, Calif., road course last season when he stalled under caution attempting to conserve fuel, produced his second top-5 finish on an oval. Before Sunday, all of Ambrose's Sprint Cup top-5s had occurred on tracks out of the scheduling mainstream, either on road courses, short or restrictor tracks. He was third at Bristol and fourth at Talladega in 2009 and fifth at Richmond in 2010 for JTG-Daugherty.

Currently 17th in driver points, Ambrose is in an intriguing position to capture a Chase berth. If he can maintain a top-20 standing and nab a victory at Watkins Glen or Sonoma, where his average finish is 2.5 and 4.5 the past two years, he could leap into the playoffs. Beginning this season, two drivers with the most wins who are within points positions 11 through 20 after 26 races will gain entry.

4. The marrow of the Sprint Cup season could be unfulfilling. Racing at the Daytona 500 was marked by two-car snuggle-drafting -- odd, often unfulfilling, but frantic enough to produce what turned into a storybook finish with Bayne's victory. A carry over of manic driving and the destruction of Jeff Gordon's 66-race winless streak made the show at Phoenix compelling. That was racing on a restrictor plate and short track, respectively. Las Vegas marked the first of 11 1.5-mile events, and the product was at times morose.

Certainly, Stewart's dominance was partially responsible. He led 163 of 267 laps before a late pit stop cost him a win. But the brand of strung-out racing displayed Sunday will eventually become the source of hand-wringing in a sport whose fans, media and eventually drivers perseverate over discussing the product more than in any other. And then the sanctioning body intervenes, and it starts all over again.

5. Danica Patrick can do this. Patrick's exploration of a potential NASCAR career has been met with the same skepticism and near-cynicism as her early open wheel tenure. Some observers cannot come to terms with the fact that her on-track performance doesn't match the volume of her off-track marketing blitz. It can't, ever, wherever she finishes. And it doesn't matter. She attracts sponsors, gains attention for them, creates revenue streams that benefit her teammates, and atop all that has attained a competency in every series she's attempted.

TUTTLE: Patrick's breakthrough in Vegas

She's reset a passel of gender-specific IndyCar records and on Saturday at Las Vegas became the highest-finishing female in that sanctioning body's history with a fourth-place result. That she did so in just her 16th start in NASCAR's second-tier series in a race featuring scores of Sprint Cup drivers should matter. So should the fact she's fourth in series points.

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