When it comes to the business of winning the Sprint Cup championship, Sunday's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is, without question, the most significant event of the early season.
Why? Just look at the race's history. Six of the 11 past winners in Sin City have gone on to win the title. Last March -- in a telling bit of foreshadowing -- Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards piloted the two fastest cars.
Stewart, starting 15th that day, quickly charged through the field to seize the lead on lap 13. He seemed to have an extra gear of speed that no else had (sound familiar?) and could blaze though the corners faster than anyone because his car was almost perfectly balanced (sound familiar?). He led 163 of the 267 laps and at one point had a four-second lead -- a country mile in NASCAR -- over the second-place car.
But then, on lap 151, after a pit stop, Stewart pulled out of his stall and drove over the rear tire changer's air hose, which caught the left-rear corner of Stewart's car. The air hose was pulled out of the pit, which caused NASCAR to issue a penalty to the No. 14 team. Stewart was ordered back to pit road, and the miscue cost him the win. He fell back to 24th place. He made an impressive late-race run, but was only able to rally to second.
Who won? That would be Carl Edwards, who last fall battled Stewart in the most arresting duel in the history of the Chase. But the seeds of their head-to-head playoff fight were planted at Vegas, which is one of the most challenging tracks on the circuit for the teams. Winning at the 1.5-mile oval requires a well-balanced car, fast pit stops and the ability to adapt to changing track conditions. In short, it requires all the same things it takes to capture the championship, which is why the cream generally rises in the Nevada desert.
Here are the five drivers I'll be watching when the green flag waves -- and no surprise, these are the five drivers I think have the best shot at the title in 2012.
1. Jimmie Johnson
The five-time champ has won four of the last seven races at Vegas. Johnson's season certainly didn't start the way he had hoped -- he was wrecked on the second lap of the Daytona 500 and his team was docked 25 points by NASCAR for an illegal modification made to the No. 48 car prior to arriving at Daytona (the team is appealing) -- but Johnson made a nice rebound last Sunday at Phoenix, where he finished fourth.
Though plenty of pens in the motor sports media have already begun to prepare Johnson's obituary for the 2012 season, I'm certainly not in the group. Sure, Johnson is currently 37th in points, but there are still 24 races to go before the Chase begins. I'll make a prediction: Not only will Johnson qualify for the playoffs, but also he'll also finish the regular season in the top-five in the standings. He's also my pick to win on Sunday.
2. Denny Hamlin
So far in 2012 Hamlin has been the most impressive driver on the circuit. He finished fourth at Daytona and won last Sunday at Phoenix. A year after finishing ninth in the Chase, Hamlin is atop the points standings.
Hamlin's quick start shouldn't be all that surprising. This offseason his longtime crew chief, Mike Forde, was let go and Darian Grubb, who guided Stewart to the title in 2011, was signed. To me, the most important person in the sport so far this season hasn't been behind a wheel; he's been sitting atop the No. 11 pit box. Grubb has revitalized Hamlin, and he's applying the same setup secrets to Hamlin's Toyota that he did to Stewart's Chevy last fall. Right now, the entire garage is chasing Grubb.
Hamlin finished seventh at Vegas last March. He should do better than that on Sunday.
3. Tony Stewart
Las Vegas Motor Speedway is just one of two tracks that hosts a Cup or Nationwide race at which Stewart has yet to reach Victory Lane (the other is Kentucky Speedway). He feels strongly that Edwards stole the win from him here last year. Look for him to be very strong on Sunday. He's led laps at Vegas in seven of his last 11 starts at the track.
4. Carl Edwards
So far this season Edwards has only been so-so. He came in eighth at Daytona, 17th at Phoenix and has yet to lead a lap.
Before the 500, I had a long talk with Darrell Waltrip, and he expressed concern that Edwards could take a major step backward this season after narrowly losing the 2012 championship to Stewart. This is what happened to Denny Hamlin in 2011 after he came up short in the Chase to Jimmie Johnson, and so far Edwards has done little to allay those concerns that Waltrip expressed.
This is why Sunday is so significant for Edwards and the No. 99 crew. Vegas was the only race they won last year; if they can't at least rip off a top-five run, it could signal this team is in trouble.
5. Kyle Busch
A native of Las Vegas, Busch will be driving a brand new car on Sunday, one that the No. 18 crew has spent months preparing. Busch won this race in 2009 and has three top-three finishes at the track in eight career starts.
Busch has had a relatively quiet start to the regular season --which, for him, must be considered a small victory after being parked by NASCAR late last year for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday in a Truck Series race at Texas. Busch did win the season-opening exhibition Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, but finished 17th in the 500, then sixth at Phoenix last Sunday.
Is this the year that Busch, who is generally regarded in the garage as the most talented driver in the sport, puts it all together and seriously challenges for his first championship? If he wins at his hometown track, it would send a strong message to the garage that the answer is yes.