There are 35 points-paying races to go until the Sprint Cup season-finale in Homestead, thousands of laps to turn, tens of thousands of miles to drive. So is it possible, just one race into the season, that a favorite to dethrone Jimmie Johnson, the reigning champion, already has emerged? Well, in a word: maybe.
Last Sunday at Daytona, Carl Edwards authored a beautiful race -- a championship-building kind of race. He hung back for much of the afternoon, doing everything and anything to stay out of harm's way, and he avoided all of the big wrecks that took out the likes of contenders Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and two-time Daytona 500 Michael Waltrip. " I just did my best to be there at the end," Edwards said. "That's not real flashy. That doesn't look great for TV sometimes. But we were there at the end."
Yes he was, as Edwards finished second behind surprise winner Trevor Bayne. Because Bayne is running for the championship in the Nationwide Series, he's not eligible to compete for the Cup title, which means Edwards is the Sprint Cup points leader as the circuit heads to Phoenix this Sunday for Race No. 2 of 2011. But I think Edwards is more than just the points leader: At this early stage of the season -- and I know, it's ridiculously early -- he's got to be considered the driver with the best shot of taking down Johnson, the five-time Cup winner. Edwards won the last two races of 2010, and he firmly believes that he and his longtime crew chief Bob Osborne have discovered a setup secret in their No. 99 Ford that will make them a weekly contender for checkered flags this season. What's more, Edwards is the best in the sport at 1.5-mile tracks, and half of the Chase races take place at these intermediate-length venues.
Edwards is my pick to win on Sunday at Phoenix, which is one of Edwards' favorite tracks. He won the last race held at PIR in November and he's finished in the top 10 in five of his last six starts. Matter of fact, I think he'll dominate this race and take the checkers in a snoozer.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the green flag flies on Sunday:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Not long ago Johnson absolutely dominated Phoenix. Between the fall of 2007 and the fall of 2009, Johnson won four of the five Cup races at PIR. Since then, Johnson has a third-place finish and a fifth at the one-mile flat track. This weekend Johnson, who is 25th in the standings after wrecking at Daytona, will be driving chassis No. 590, which he last piloted to a fifth-place finish at Richmond last year. On Sunday expect a top-5 out of Johnson, who has completed every lap at Phoenix (4,750 of 4,750) in his 15 Cup starts there -- a stunning accomplishment.
2. Denny Hamlin
After having more than two months to reflect on how he lost the 2010 points title to Johnson, Hamlin in January admitted that his meltdown began in Phoenix in November, when he had to pit late for gas while nearly everyone else made it to the finish line without an additional stop. Hamlin finished 12th that day and, though he still held the points lead over Johnson, his momentum was sapped and he ended up crashing the next week in Homestead, ending his title chances.
Hamlin has never won at PIR, but he's had four third-place finishes in 11 starts. Considering he led 190 of the 312 laps there in November and clearly had the fastest car that day, I expect Hamlin to be in the lead pack as the laps wind down.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
This is a big race for Junior. He had high hopes of winning last Sunday at Daytona, one of his best tracks on the schedule, but he suffered a flat tire late, lost track position, then was involved in a wreck that caused him to finish a disappointing 24th. Earnhardt hasn't finished higher than 20th in the standings in the last two years, and if he has a poor run on Sunday, a here-we-go-again vibe could grip this team, which is why Phoenix is so significant for Earnhardt and his new crew chief Steve Letarte.
In 17 career starts at Phoenix, Earnhardt has two wins, but his last victory was seven years ago. A top-10 finish on Sunday would be a moral victory for the No. 88 team.
4. Kevin Harvick
Harvick, who was my pick to win the Daytona 500, blew his engine early in the race and finished second to last, an atrocious way to start his season. Harvick, who came in third in the final standings last year, still must be considered a heavy favorite to make the Chase, but you never want to fall into an early points hole, which is why this race is key for the No. 29 team.
On Sunday he'll be driving a brand new car that will possess all of the latest and greatest Richard Childress Racing technology. So Sunday should be a good barometer for how this team will fare in 2011.