Dustin Long
Monday March 21st, 2011

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- As soon as runner-up Carl Edwards finished his 500 laps at Bristol on Sunday, he focused on the future.

"I'm just ready to go to California,'' he said of this weekend's race at Auto Club Speedway.

After spending much of the day chasing winner Kyle Busch or Jimmie Johnson around the high-banked oval, Edwards likely will be the one leading the way at California this weekend.

He's won the past two races on tracks similar to Auto Club Speedway with his victory at Las Vegas earlier this month and Homestead in last year's season finale. Roush Fenway Racing also has shown progress since late last season on such tracks where horsepower and aerodynamics are vital.

Coming off his best Bristol finish since his 2008 win, Edwards carries momentum into this weekend's race.

"It's no fun to run second, but when I look at the big picture, the fact that I'm sitting here frustrated about a second-place run, being ... one point out of the points lead, that's a huge jump from a year ago,'' said Edwards, who trails only Kurt Busch in the point standings. "I guess we're just so greedy that when you're running well, you want to win every race, you want to lead the most laps, you want to sit on every pole, but our performance has been great.

"It's just been amazing. It's been a huge turnaround, so I've got to keep this in perspective. By the time Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday rolls around, we're gearing up to go to California I have a feeling I'll be all right."

Kyle Busch and Johnson, though, will enter this weekend with questions.

Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled with engine issues. Denny Hamlin changed engines before the Las Vegas race and Busch's engine expired during it. Teammate Joey Logano lost an engine at Phoenix and complained about his car's sluggish power during Sunday's race.

"The guys in the engine shop have been working really hard and doing a lot of things to try to get the most out of the engines that we can currently get,'' Busch said. "Maybe we push it too far. We've talked about it, and we've talked about some things that maybe we can change and work on for reliability. All we can do is work toward all of that and get better.''

Engines aren't an issue for Johnson, but performance is at the big tracks. He finished 16th at Las Vegas after what he called a "miss on the setup because we're still developing our cars.

"Without testing, we're bringing a lot of new stuff to the track and you don't know until you get into a race situation how it's going to work. I left there really disappointed that we didn't finish inside the top 10.''

Hendrick Motorsports has all four of its teams work in different areas each weekend in hopes of finding the right package faster. Johnson said his team is making progress, but "I'm not saying that California is going to be real easy on us. I think we found a direction. One or more mile-and-a-half, two-mile tracks [and] I think we'll be where we need to be.''

California also is important for a couple of other reasons. The track's spring race is a good predictor of who will make the Chase. Eight of the race's top-10 finishers went on to make the Chase in 2007, '09 and '10. Seven of the race's top-10 finishers made the Chase in 2008.

Bobby Hutchens, director of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, takes a different view of California, which is now the season's fifth race. "If you're in the top 10 in points in those first five races, you have to have a really bad summer to knock yourself out of that thing,'' he said.

More than 75 percent of the drivers who have been in the top 10 in points after five races since 2007 made the Chase. Even with a new points system this season, that seems to be a good sign for Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, who are both off to strong starts. Stewart is third in the points and Newman fourth.

"It's like I told our guys in our meeting last week, to get to Texas [in early April], I think that is kind of a benchmark for us and [to] still be where we are in the top-5 with both cars,'' Hutchens said. "I think that will be big for us getting into the summer because we seem to be a stronger race team in the summer.''

Yet, so much can impact performance, which Greg Biffle saw at Las Vegas earlier this month. Although he had a strong car, fueling issues forced him to pit early at times and played a role in him finishing 28th. The team changed its gasman for Bristol.

Similar fueling problems for any team could be costly this week at California's 2-mile track, where fuel mileage can play a key role. With the new fuel cans this year (because of the elimination of the catch can man), gas men are adjusting to how they fuel cars. They must be more precise in connecting the fuel can to the opening. That's critical because any delay can further slow a pit stop.

Even on perfect stops, the fueling process has slowed and tire changers are finishing before all the fuel is in the car. Sometimes, teams are willing to leave before all the fuel is in the car, trading track position for fuel. Other times, they wait on the fuel.

"When you're plugged in, you know everybody wants to go, your driver is starting to inch the car and you're helpless at that point,'' said Doug Newell, gas man for Martin Truex Jr.'s team. "All you can do is plug-in and wait. You just wait and wait and sometimes wait and wait.''


She'll be Back: Jennifer Jo Cobb refused to start Saturday's Nationwide race when she said team owner Rick Russell told her 10 minutes before the race that the team would start and park.

"It was a blow to my principles,'' Cobb said.

Russell said he told the team Friday about the plans to start and park since the team would use the same car this weekend at California and didn't want to risk damaging it in Saturday's race.

Cobb also said that Russell told her he would replace her for the California race, nullifying a five-race agreement they had where he provided the cars and she provided the engines and bought the tires. Russell said the contract had been breached when Cobb failed to provide an engine at Las Vegas and at Bristol. Cobb disputed that claim.

Cobb decided it was best to walk away just before the race.

"I'm sitting on pit road with a car without a driver and it made myself look stupid, NASCAR look stupid, the whole bunch of us look stupid,'' Russell said.

Chris Lawson filled in, driving the car for three laps before parking it. He was credited with 41st.

Russell said Tim Andrews will drive for him at California. As for Cobb?

"You pick up the pieces,'' she said. "You pick up the phone and you start working with those other team owners that do understand.''

She'll drive a Nationwide car for Rick Ware Racing this weekend.


Dominators: With his win Sunday at Bristol, Kyle Busch remained a part of an exclusive group. Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Hamlin are the only drivers to have won the last 15 Sprint Cup races at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond, the circuit's lone short tracks. The last driver other then those three to win on a short track was Carl Edwards in 2008.

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News and Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.