Perhaps no one has ever breathed a bigger sigh of relief after a win than Carl Edwards did last week in the Phoenix. Edwards, who only lost the 2011 championship of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series on a tiebreaker, went 0-for-2012 and missed the playoffs. It took an exciting finish, but Edwards held off Jimmie Johnson last week, got off the schneid and can be feeling good as the drivers converge on Las Vegas for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 (3 PM ET, Fox).
“He’s a great driver, he just got the bad-luck bug,” said TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill. “Last year he was just missing the setups, had engine blowouts and was in the wrong place at the wrong time (with regard to wrecks).” For casual NASCAR fans, like this writer, to whom “the setups” might be like a foreign language, it refers generally to the ability of the car to handle the race.
I pressed Bill as to whether bad setups and engine blowouts are really examples of bad luck—after all, what’s the point of a crew chief and a team if not to ensure the car runs right and gets the job done. Bill allowed that the crew couldn’t escape all responsibility, but hastened to point out that there is s a feeling-out process that takes place in the initial part of any season between the driver, the crew and the car. And it was that early stage of the season that put Edwards in a hole he could not climb out of. Still, I can’t help but note that Edwards drives for Roush Fenway, the group that owns the Red Sox. And I trust I can be forgiven for wondering if maybe Bobby Valentine spent 2012 moonlighting as Edwards’ crew chief.
Whatever the reason, the problems are clearly fixed this time around. Edwards led for 122 laps, easily the most of any driver last week, so it was a solid race, start to finish. He comes into Las Vegas as a 10-1 shot to repeat his win. Edwards is not unfamiliar with winning in Vegas—he grabbed the checkered flag here in 2008 and in the near-championship year of ’11.
SUNDAY ON THE STRIP
Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a pretty basic track—a mile and a half tri-oval that has none of the charm characteristics (i.e., low walls that make it difficult to pass) that make a track unique, both aesthetically and from the standpoint of driving strategy. It’s what you see is what you get, and in that light, it’s no surprise that Jimmie Johnson has excelled here—winning each year from 2005-07 and again in 2010, or that JJ is the early favorite this time around at 6-1.
Four drivers are slotted at 8-1. This group includes Brad Keselowski, who holds the pole and won last year’s championship. Keselowski is looking for his maiden win of 2013, and is a strong third in the overall points standings. He’s joined by Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart.
Stewart is the driver who edged out Edwards back in 2011, and he’s off to a slow start this time around. It’s something he shares in common with Matt Kenseth, as both are well off the playoff pace. It’s obviously very early—there are 24 races between now and when the playoff field is settled. But since we devoted time at the top of the column to noting how Edwards dug an early hole, we have to point out that a couple name drivers are early candidates to dig that same hole for themselves this year.
If nothing else, both Stewart and Kenseth have known success at Las Vegas. Stewart won this race last year, and while it’s been a while for Kenseth, he won back-to-back in 2003-04. Kenseth goes off at 15-1 tomorrow. It’s certainly not must-win for either, but a strong Top 10 finish would be a good way for either driver to restore order and work on avoiding being this year’s version of Carl Edwards.