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Strong start to Cup season puts Harvick in range at Vegas


It is always a telling race, the Sprint Cup event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Though the Cup boys only have been running on the 1.5-mile oval that sits some 15 miles northeast of the Strip since 1998, the race here has emerged as one of the most important of the season. Why? Simple: If you perform well at Vegas, you're more than likely going to be fast at the other 1.5-mile track events on the circuit, which form some of the most important events of the season, including the Chase.

One statistic tells the story of the track's significance: Four of the past nine winners at LVMS, which is where the Cup drivers will be racing on in Sunday's Shelby American, have gone on to win the championship. "The best teams always shine at Las Vegas," Alan Gustafson, the crew chief for Mark Martin, once told me. "To win at Vegas, you usually have to adapt to changing track conditions. You have to have a powerful engine. You have to be mistake-free on pit road. Generally speaking, you have to be good in all areas. So yeah, it's not surprising that the best overall team each season often ends up winning there."

Las Vegas is the first of six regular-season events that are held at 1.5-mile tracks. Five of the 10 Chase races take place at tracks of that distance. Here are the five drivers that I think have the most on the line during Sunday's race:

Harvick is off to the best start of his 10-year Cup career. He has led laps in each of the first two races (he came in seventh at Daytona and second at Fontana) and he currently sits atop the point standings. More impressive, he had the best car in the field in each event. A year after he failed to win a race and qualify for the Chase, Harvick has been the biggest surprise thus far.

Can he keep it going? It certainly looks like it. His team, Richard Childress Racing, underwent sweeping organizational changes late last year and in the offseason has strengthened its engine alliance with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. The results have been dramatic. Not only is Harvick making an early charge, but so are his teammates Clint Bowyer (second in points after finishing 15th in 2009) and Jeff Burton (fifth a year after finishing 17th). Harvick is my pick to take the checkers on Sunday.

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After winning the regular-season points championship last season, Stewart stumbled in the Chase. He finished sixth in the final standings, and now his late-season swoon seems to have carried over into 2010. He was a popular pick in the garage to win at Daytona, but struggled with his handling in the Great American Race and came in 22nd. He followed that up with a so-so ninth place run at Fontana.

Stewart has never won at Vegas in either the Cup or Nationwide Series. LVMS, in fact, is the only track that hosts both series where Stewart has never taken a checkered flag. Can he end this drought on Sunday? I don't think so. So far in 2010 his team, Stewart-Haas Racing, simply hasn't shown the straight-line speed that it takes to be a strong contender.

On Thursday in Columbia, Mo., Edwards' wife, Kate, gave birth to the couple's first child, Annie, and don't be surprised if Edwards celebrates by winning his first race of the season on Sunday. Yes, his team, Roush-Fenway Racing, ran in the middle of the pack for most of last season. Yes, RFR has been slow so far in 2010. But Edwards will challenge for the checkers in Vegas for two reasons: He's the best driver on the circuit on 1.5-mile tracks with seven career wins and he's especially good at LMVS, where he won in 2008.

After Johnson narrowly held off Kevin Harvick last Sunday in Fontana to take the checkered flag, a feeling of here-we-go-again descended over the entire series. The four-time defending Cup champion doesn't usually start the season fast, but Johnson and his team already look like they're in midseason form. Johnson has won this race three times. Go ahead and pencil him in for a top-five finish.

Last week was a nightmare for Earnhardt and his No. 88 team. Junior was busted on pit road for speeding, causing him to drop through the field. He would later suffer mechanical failure and wind up 32nd. We're only in week three of the regular season, but it's not a stretch to say that this team already is at a crossroads. A year after finishing a career-worse 25th in the final standings, Earnhardt, who's currently 16th in points, needs to show that he can run well on intermediate-length tracks -- places where he's struggled recently.

On Sunday, Little E will be driving the first car that his crew chief Lance McGrew built specifically for him last spring. Anything outside of a top-10 finish on Sunday would be a disappointment for the No. 88 team.