By Lars Anderson
March 13, 2013
The strong performance by Matt Kenseth and his team at Las Vegas is a reliable sign of things to come.
Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images

If past is prologue, then you've got to like Matt Kenseth's shot at winning the Cup championship this season. Last Sunday, Kenseth took the checkered flag at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where six of the last eight winners of that race have finished first or second in the final standings.

Why does Vegas typically reveal who will be fast in the fall? Because to win at the 1.5-mile track, a driver has to have solid setup (the framework of which can be used at five of the 10 Chase races), his team has to be sound on pit road (track position is crucial at Las Vegas -- as it is on most of the playoff tracks), and the driver and crew must adjust to the changing condition of the track as the afternoon progresses and the temperature cools (another requirement for being a championship contender). So keep an eye on Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion who is in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing.

LONG: Kenseth, new crew chief, clicking early

Now let's crack open this week's NASCAR mailbag.

I think you are wrong on Denny Hamlin. He still has not gotten over JJ beating him three years ago. Jimmie got in is head, and I think he is still there! Let's talk about Denny. When everyone else was getting "seat time," Denny was at home waiting for his girlfriend to have a baby and, really, he didn't have a lot of laps going into Phoenix. He was complaining about passing early in the race and continued throughout.-- Mike Henry, Dallas

You certainly could make the argument, Mike, that Hamlin hasn't been the same driver since he lost the championship to Jimmie Johnson in 2010. Back then Hamlin held the points heading into the season finale at Homestead, only to get passed by Johnson in the closing miles of the season.

It was a heartbreaking loss for Hamlin. Since then, he's finished ninth in the standings in '11 and sixth last year. But he's an elite talent -- he did win five races last season and sat on the pole three times -- and his crew chief, Darien Grubb, is one of the best in the sport, having led Tony Stewart to the title two years ago.

What's Hamlin done this season? Well, he's currently fourth in the standings and he's led laps in two of the three races. I still think he'll be a serious contender this fall -- especially as he turns more laps and grows more comfortable in the new car.

Is Carl Edwards back? -- Jonathon Whitworth

I think he is, Jonathon. After finishing 33rd at Daytona, Edwards has rebounded nicely. He snapped a nearly two-year winless streak at Phoenix and then came in fifth last Sunday at Las Vegas.

Edwards is meshing well with his new crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, who guided Kurt Busch to the championship in 2004. Late last year, I asked Edwards if he could take away anything positive from the 2012 season in which he finished a career-worst 15th in the points. After a long pause, he said, "One thing. Hopefully we've suffered enough bad luck that we won't be as snakebitten next year."

It's still early, but clearly it appears that Edwards will be much more of a force this season than he was in 2012. And if he advances to the Chase, he's always a threat in the playoffs, because he excels on intermediate-length tracks, and those form the backbone of the Chase.

Which driver outside the top 20 will make the Chase? And which driver in the top 10 will miss it? -- Chris Kah

The driver currently inside the top 10 who will come up short of qualifying for the playoffs is Aric Almirola, who, to his credit, has been the biggest surprise of the young season thus far. Almirola was 20th in the standings in 2012, but this year he's strung together finishes of 13th at Daytona, 15th at Phoenix and 16th at Las Vegas, and is currently tenth in the standings. Can he keep up this pace? I don't think so.

The driver outside the top 20 right now who will make the Chase is... no one. I think the lowest driver in the standings who will surge into the top 12 before the regular season ends is Tony Stewart, who is currently 17th. Stewart always seems to heat up as the temperatures rise in the summer and the tracks become slicker. That's been his MO during his entire career.

Lars, I used to be a huge NASCAR fan but dropped watching the sport when the CoT was introduced. The biggest problem I have with NASCAR is that they don't let the manufacturers do what they did back in the late 60s and early 70s: make cars for racing. In an effort to level the playing field, they dumbed down the racing where all of the cars are basically the same... And as far as TV coverage, by the fifth race, we will already see the race for the chase standings. Finally, the biggest problem with NASCAR is the season is just too long. It's longer than baseball season!-- Michael Koltuniak, Plymouth, MI

You raise a lot of good points, Michael. Now that the obituary on the Car of Tomorrow can be written, we can say that, overall, it marked a step backward for NASCAR. The new design -- the "Gen-Six" -- does have more manufacturer identity, and so far the look of it, at least, seems to be resonating with most (but not all) hardcore NASCAR fans.

As for the schedule, nine out of ten drivers will tell you that the season is too long. It's a complaint I've heard repeatedly in my dozen years on the beat. Will it ever be shortened? I doubt it. There's simply too much television revenue to be made off of nine months of stock car racing.

I've been looking on local newsstands for the NASCAR 2013 SI edition and can't find it. I buy it every year and love it! Did SI publish it this year? -- Marilyn, Port Huron, MI

I'm sorry to report, Marilyn, that we did not publish a 2013 special NASCAR issue. My preview appeared in the Feb. 25 edition of SI (the one with Bryce Harper on the cover).

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