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