Usual suspects starting to percolate to the top after two races

Updated: February 29, 2008

Start Your Engines

As expected, the Sprint Cup world resumed spinning on its regular axis at California.

Weather snafus aside, the results on the track bore closer resemblance to what the season will likely deliver as far as contenders. Only three members of the 2007 Chase for the Cup class finished in the top 10 at the winter restrictor-plate crapshoot better known as the Daytona 500, but at the Auto Club Speedway the top eight finishers were all in last year's Chase.

Right behind winner Carl Edwards came the central figures of last season's title fight -- champion Jimmie Johnson and runner-up Jeff Gordon.

The familiar Hendrick Chevrolets weren't factors in Florida, as Gordon bowed out with suspension problems and the pole-sitting Johnson got caught in a late crash and was lucky just to finish 200 laps. But with the teammates returning to an intermediate track with the new car that they figured out faster than anyone a year ago, class was back in session.

"Through the course of the limited practice we had on track, we found some things and really got a good direction of where to go with the setup of the car," said Johnson, who jumped to eighth in points. "Had a great race over the two days we raced in Fontana, got a decent finish out of it."

When you combine for 16 wins as Johnson and Gordon did in 2007, seconds and thirds can be deemed only "decent." They approach races like Tiger Woods approaches golf tournaments, and this week they're coming to almost a home course.

Johnson has won three consecutive UAW-Dodge 400s at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval -- a style not uncommon to the schedule. Gordon won in 2001 and in the past three years hasn't been far behind the No. 48 with three top-5s, including second last year.

"We'll certainly be able to challenge for four [in a row] race wins out there," Johnson said. "It's going to be tough. I see a lot of fast cars and I know a lot of teams are going to be smarter after this opening round of downforce-racing tracks."

The intermediates are still a question mark with the new car, but Hendrick Motorsports' knack of knowing slightly more than everyone else certainly showed last year at short ovals and elsewhere the new car debuted.

That makes Johnson and Gordon still the ones to beat until proven otherwise, and good luck outsmarting them at Vegas.

"We looked at the telemetry during the Las Vegas test and the new car was 13 mph slower in the middle of the corner compared to the old car," Gordon said. "That's a great comparison of the speed differential between the two, but we're not racing against the older car. We're racing against other teams. We don't need to be faster than the older car, just faster than the other teams."

Rocket Man

Carl Edwards: Not too many will look back fondly on the two-day Auto Club 500 and Track Drying Extravaganza, but for the No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford team it was a show of strength.

Doesn't happen every week that someone can leave the Hendrick Motorsports cars in the dust, but Edwards did in passing second-place Jimmie Johnson and third-place Jeff Gordon down the stretch, building a lead of nearly four seconds when a caution froze the field at the end. Gordon said Edwards was in "another league." So much for being lethargic on a Monday morning restart.

"I told my guys, 'We got them right where we want them,'" said Edwards, who finished an indifferent 19th the week before at Daytona. "This is what we prepare for. The tougher it gets, the more competitive it is, we have a 55-hour red flag and we're still going to go out there and race as hard as possible. That's what we prepare for. That's what I prepare for. I enjoy that kind of stuff."

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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If those two stay hot, Hamlin is going to have work very hard not to be a forgotten third wheel. It's early but he hasn't shown much yet -- 17th at Daytona, failing to deliver with a car that was strong early, and at California he was a weeper casualty with an early crash that left him 41st.

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