As the sky darkened last Saturday night over Texas Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle pulled away from the field. They clearly had the two fastest cars on the track, as they were able to stay on the throttle through the big sweeping turns at Texas longer than the other drivers. Biffle passed Johnson late to win his first race of the season, but it sure looks like this battle between Biffle and Johnson is just getting started. Yes, even though we're barely one-fifth of the way through the season, it already appears as if these will be the two drivers to beat for the championship.
The Biff and Five-Time should again be the class of the field this Sunday at Kansas Speedway. Biffle, the points leader, has two wins at Kansas and a career average finish of 8.3, the best among active drivers. Johnson, eighth in the standings, also has two victories at the 1.5-mile track and a career average finish of 8.4, which is the second best among active drivers. Barring an accident or a mechanical failure, these two should be gunning for the lead as the laps wind down.
Last October at Kansas I shadowed Johnson and his No. 48 team the entire weekend, chronicling it in an SI cover story. Johnson won that race and the next week at Charlotte he was repeatedly asked by reporters if he believed in the SI cover jinx. He claimed he didn't, but late in that race he crashed violently into the wall, which essentially ended his shot at capturing his sixth straight Sprint Cup title.
"Dude, I will never believe in the SI curse," Johnson told me this offseason. "I know some people get into that thing and truly believe that bad luck will happen to you right after you're on the cover, but not me. It just wasn't my year."
But I expect it to be Johnson's day on Sunday. The last race he won was that Kansas event last October, and it says here he'll take the checkers again on the plains, narrowly beating Biffle on Sunday to hand owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career Cup win.
Along with JJ and Biff, here are three other drivers to watch in the Jayhawk State:
1. Carl Edwards
A year after losing the championship to Tony Stewart based on a tiebreaker of most wins in the Chase, it appears that Edwards has slowed a tick. He hasn't been a threat to reach Victory Lane in any of the seven races, hasn't led a single lap and hasn't yet finished in the top three. A letdown was expected, and that's precisely what has happened. Edwards is currently 11th in the standings.
Born and bred in Columbia, Mo., Edwards still lives in the house in which he grew up. He considers Kansas his home track and he should be the crowd favorite on Sunday. Edwards needs something to kickstart his season, and perhaps a visit to the 1.5-mile track on the prairie can do that. In nine career starts at Kansas, Edwards has four top-five finishes.
2. Jeff Gordon
No driver in the Cup series has had more bad luck this season than Gordon. He seemingly has the speed to finish in the top three nearly every week, but because of pit road gaffes, mechanical problems and wrecks not of his making, he has only one top-five finish (fourth at Texas last week) and is currently 17th in the standings.
Yet Gordon's demeanor at the track has remained positive, because he knows that he has a good thing going with his crew chief, Alan Gustafson. Eventually, fast cars -- and Gordon has a very fast car -- reach the lead pack. That's where Gordon should be at Kansas, where he has two wins and an average finish of 10.2.
3. Brad Keselowski
If Keselowski is ever going to be a serious contender for the championship, he needs to run better on 1.5-mile tracks such as Kansas. Half of the 10 Chase races take place at these intermediate-length venues, and so to win the title, you must master the 1.5-milers.
So far this season Keselowski has struggled at 1.5-mile tracks. At Las Vegas he finished 32nd and at Texas last weekend he came 36th. Yet last year no one was better at Kansas than Keselowski. He won the spring race (albeit on fuel-mileage) and finished third in the fall.
I think Sunday will be telling for the No. 2 team. If it struggles again on a 1.5-mile track, it will be a strong indication that this team isn't going to make much noise this fall. But if Keselowski can rip off a top-five run, it will show that he could be precisely what he was in 2011: a darkhorse for the Cup.