It's one of the most compelling stories in NASCAR right now: The rise of Stewart-Haas Racing.
Last season was mostly forgettable for the Tony Stewart-owned team. While Stewart won two races and qualified for the Chase, he never flashed the raw speed in the 10-race playoff to stay close to Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Stewart's lone teammate, Ryan Newman, failed to make the Chase and wound up 15th in the final standings.
Yet ever since Stewart opened the doors to his race shop late in 2008, SHR has been on the cusp of being a power team in the Cup series. In 2009, his first season as a driver-owner, Stewart won the regular season points title, and then faded late in the Chase. Newman also qualified for the Chase in '09, but neither SHR driver had the power under the hood or the handling to run nose-to-nose with eventual champion Johnson.
But so far in 2011, that dynamic has shifted. Stewart and Newman are tied for third in the points, while Johnson is seventh. More significant, Stewart, who has led a series-high 222 laps this season, arguably has had a chance to win three of the four races. He held commanding leads at both Phoenix and Las Vegas and he began the final-restart at Daytona in second-place only to lose the draft on the last lap and fade to a 13th-place finish. Stewart leases his team's engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, and there have been whispers in the garage for more than two years that Hendrick doesn't give away his best equipment. Well, that talk -- at least for now -- has been silenced by SHR's quick start.
Stewart should be fast on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., a two-mile track where Stewart took the checkered flag last October. Intermediate-length ovals like Fontana form the core of the Chase schedule -- five of the 10 Chase races take place at these venues -- and so that makes Sunday's race one of the most significant in the early part of NASCAR's season. After all, what teams learn this weekend about the cars' handling and setup will be applied later in the year when the title is on the line.
Stewart is my pick to take the checkers on Sunday. He usually doesn't peak until the summer months, when the temperatures rise and tracks grow slick, but this is shaping up as a different kind of year. He's looking very much like he did in 2002 and 2005 -- years when he won the championship.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the race starts on Sunday:
1. Carl Edwards
Edwards has been the most consistent driver in the Cup series so far in 2011. Through four races, he has three top-5 finishes. He's second in the standings behind Kyle Busch, who won last Sunday at Bristol, but Edwards will have an excellent shot at passing Busch in the points on Sunday. Why? Because Edwards is generally considered the top intermediate-track racer on the circuit, and he's shined at Fontana in years past. In 13 career starts at Auto Club Speedway, he has 10 top-10 finishes, six top-5s and one win. Given the way he's currently running, if Edwards doesn't author a top-5 performance on Sunday it will be an upset.
2. Denny Hamlin
What's wrong with Hamlin? A year ago he won a series-high eight races and nearly dethroned Johnson in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But through the first month of this season Hamlin has been a complete non-factor. Currently 17th in the standings, Hamlin has only one top-10 finish (seventh at Las Vegas) and already is in real danger of not making the Chase.
Historically, Fontana has not been one of Hamlin's best tracks. In 10 career starts here, his average finish is 17.2. He needs to do better than that on Sunday if he's to begin marching up the standings.
"I'm going to spend most of my flight out to California studying previous races," Hamlin said this week. "Sitting 17th in points, it's not where we want to be by any means. There's still a lot of work to be done. Obviously, we're trying to set ourselves up for a midseason run like we had last year."
3. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson is right where he needs to be in the standings. He finished third at Bristol to move to seventh in points. He certainly hasn't had the fastest car in any of the four races in 2011, but he has two top-5 finishes and suddenly it appears that the five-time defending champion is starting to awaken.
Will he get victory No. 1 of '11 on Sunday? He must be considered one of the heavy favorites. He's won four of the last seven Cup events held at Fontana and has a career average finish at the track of 5.3, which statistically makes the two-mile oval Johnson's second best track on the Cup schedule (behind Phoenix, where Johnson's career average finish is 4.8). In other words, expect a top-5 out of five-time on Sunday.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Is it a mirage or is it real? That's the big question surrounding Earnhardt's relatively fast start in 2011. A year after finishing 21st in the standings, Junior is in ninth place. He and new chief Steve Letarte appear to be meshing well and thus far Earnhardt hasn't committed any serious mistakes behind the wheel that too often defined his performances in seasons past.
In 18 career starts at Fontana, Earnhardt's average finish is 22.3. For several years he lobbied NASCAR and the track to reduce this race from 500 miles to 400, and on Sunday that wish will finally come true. Who knows? Maybe the shorter distance will help Earnhardt notch his first top-5 run of the season.