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AP Photo/Eric Reed
Order was restored to the NASCAR world last week in California.
Even though rain tried to interfere, the Cup Series completed 500 miles for the first time this season. By race's end the top finishers were all 2008 Chasers or former series champions, without any of the lightweights who were up front at Daytona when the red flag flew.
The season is starting to take its usual shape, especially now that teams are pulling into a 1.5-mile track this week at Las Vegas.
To win the Chase a team has to perform on five such ovals over the final eight weeks of the 10-race playoff, and contenders will have that in the back of their minds this week and next at Atlanta. Neither track is in the Chase (Atlanta was but will have a new early September date this year), but both are useful for setup purposes, in their own way.
"Where we need a little bit of work and help on is the high-banked, 1.5-mile tracks, and Vegas is kind of in that middle stage," three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson said. "Big, flat tracks we've got a great setup. It's just the ones with more banking that we need a little bit more work."
The Las Vegas Motor Speedway track is fairly ordinary (though the Neon Garage is very cool), with a D-shaped layout and variable banking. Only one of its previous 11 Cup races has had a margin of victory of less than a half-second, in 2006 when Johnson ran down Matt Kenseth in the final lap.
Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards won last year after leading the most laps, including the final 30, though he was later docked points for an oil tank lid snafu. That was the lasting memory from the race, along with Jeff Gordon's hard crash on the backstretch into a wall then unprotected by SAFER barriers. Will Sunday's Shelby 427 (yes, the race is 427 miles) offer a memorable on-track moment? Maybe not, but teams will still use the race as a baseline for early-season progress.
"These early races teach you very quickly where your program is compared to the competition," owner/driver and two-time champion Tony Stewart said. "If your cars are good, you'll run well at California, Vegas, Atlanta, Texas and so on. Everybody wants to know where they stack up and shake up right now. This is a huge week."
Last week started the learning, and by the end of next week we'll have a fairly good idea of who the contenders and pretenders are in 2009.
"We still have some work to do, but we definitely made some gains, and I think that will show this weekend," said Richard Petty Motorsports' Kasey Kahne, who was 12th at California. "If you can run well at California, then you can run well at the mile-and-a-half tracks. At least, that's how we've been in the past. Vegas and Atlanta are typically tracks that I've done well at and our team has done well at. This weekend should be another good test."
Matt Kenseth: Were you expecting anyone else? One week after winning NASCAR's biggest crapshoot, the 2003 Cup champion doubled up at California, a better sign of the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 Ford's strength. And give the driver some extra credit for dropping the hammer after the media blitz following Daytona. He could have instead put it on autopilot, finished top-15 and gone home for a long nap.
Kenseth has never missed a Chase, and it doesn't look like the streak will end this year, though there's a long way to go. But we kinda wonder what Brian France thinks, after saying during last season's New York champions week that Jimmie Johnson was essentially a boring champion who doesn't move the needle. Kenseth has an OK dry wit, but put it this way: Another title for the No. 17 would play big in Wisconsin.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Tony Stewart: Two races, two eighth-place finishes. Plus the Daytona Nationwide win. Outside the Goodyear rant and a few wrecked cars prior to the Daytona 500, this owner/driver thing doesn't appear to be a distraction to Smoke once he's in the seat. Stewart is one of only three guys with top-10s in both races to start the year, along with Kenseth and surprising Kurt Busch.
"To come out of California, which is not one of my best tracks, with another top-10, I think that's a pretty strong statement," Stewart said. "This is still a very young team in terms of us working together. To have the results we've had so far is very encouraging. There's still a lot of racing in front of us, but it's important to get off to a good start."
Richard Childress Racing: It's tough for one of the Cup Series' four- and five-car super-teams (Hendrick, Roush Fenway, RCR) to have a completely off weekend, if for no other reason than the math. Put all those big-money teams out there and someone's gotta have a decent day, right?
Not RCR at California. None of the Childress Chevrolets finished on the lead lap, with Clint Bowyer (19th) the only one in the top 20. Casey Mears was 24th, Jeff Burton 28th and Kevin Harvick a disappointing 38th after his first DNF in 2½ years.
"You always want to get your year off started on the right foot, and based on our performance in Fontana, we have some work to do," Burton said. "The No. 29 [Harvick] hit on something because they were running in the top 10. We'll have to work on that, take our best-laid plans to Vegas and hope that what we brought will be something we can run with the leaders with."