Carl Edwards stood on pit road at Daytona International Speedway, the NASCAR season moments away from beginning. He had won the last two races of 2010, and back on that sunny Florida day in February he firmly believed his dominance would carry over into 2011. "I feel as good about this year as I ever have heading into the season," Edwards said. "We're going to be really, really strong."
Edwards was right: He has been really, really strong in 2011. Despite finishing 18th last Sunday at Martinsville, Edwards is second in the standings behind Kyle Busch. Through six races, Edwards has one win, two second-place finishes, and four top-10s. He's led laps in four races and has taken a series-high two poles. In other words, he's been as consistently fast in qualifying, practice and in the races as any other driver this season. Now, on Saturday night, he'll be racing at one of his best tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit: Texas Motor Speedway.
Edwards has a series-high three wins at Texas. What should make his car particularly fast this weekend is his Ford FR-9 engine. This engine, which debuted last year, has an excellent cooling system. This gives drivers an advantage because it allows the Ford teams to put more tape on the front grill than the non-Ford teams, which provides the Fords with more downforce and, therefore, more speed through the corners.
Plus, there's this: Edwards is widely regarded as the top intermediate track driver in NASCAR today. Texas is a 1.5-mile oval, and Edwards has dominated these intermediate-length tracks in the past seven years. Of his 19 career wins, 14 have been on the intermediates.
Edwards is my pick to take the checkers on Saturday night and, in the process, take the lead in the points standings. It's still early in the season, but Edwards is looking more and more like the one driver who has the skill, the speed and the team to dethrone five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson this fall.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the green flag flies:
One month ago, after he struggled to a 16th place at Las Vegas, Johnson was 12th in the standings, prompting many in the garage to wonder what was wrong with the reigning champ. Well, we now have the answer: absolutely nothing.
Though Johnson has yet to win in 2011, he's flashing the kind of speed and displaying the kind of decision-making on the track that have propelled him to all of his titles. He finished third at Phoenix, third at Bristol, second at Fontana and is now up to third in the standings. On Saturday at Texas, he must be considered one of the favorites.
He came in second in this race last year and he's finished second or better at Texas in five of his last nine starts. Barring a mechanical problem or a wreck, Johnson should be good for a top-5 on Saturday night.
The last time the Cup circuit rolled through Texas the dominant driver was Biffle. He led 224 of the 334 laps and would have won in a snoozer, but he experienced an issue late in the race with his shifter that prevented him from being able to put his No. 16 Ford into first or second gear, slowing Biffle whenever he left the pits and on restarts. Still, it's rare for one driver to thoroughly blow away the field like Biffle did last November at Texas, and many in the garage expect a repeat performance.
Harvick has emerged as one of the most compelling stories in NASCAR in 2011. A year after finishing third in the final standings, Harvick started the season slowly (he blew an engine at Daytona and finished 42nd) but has come along in the last two weeks, winning at Fontana and Martinsville. He's up to fifth in points.
Harvick has never won at Texas -- nor has he ever won three races in a row -- but he should run with the leaders on Saturday night. Hes' finished seventh or better in his last three starts in the Lone Star State. He'll be piloting chassis No. 309, which he drove to fourth-place finishes in both of the races in Pocono, Pa., last season.
According to NASCAR statistics, Stewart has been the top driver at Texas over the last 12 starts. In that span, he has recorded the best driver rating (104.5), the best average running position (8.6), the best average green flag speed (173.177) and the most laps spent in the top-15 (3,347, which translates into 83.3 percent of the total laps run).
Stewart's results this season don't show it, but he's looking very much like a title contender. Though he's yet to take a checkered flag in 2011, he's arguably had the fastest car in two of the races (Phoenix and Las Vegas) and had an excellent shot to win another (he wound up 13th at Daytona after being in second with two laps to go). Can Stewart, who's currently 11th in the standings, notch his first victory of '11 on Saturday night? To do so, he'll have to outrun Edwards, who I think everyone will be chasing once the engines fire.