Five things we learned in Vegas
Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon help make Hendrick Motorsports the team to beat
In only his second race with his new crew chief, Matt Kenseth placed fifth
Penske critics are raising their eyebrows after another rough start
LAS VEGAS -- It doesn't matter if it's Las Vegas or Los Caminos, when you gamble against Jimmie Johnson ... you come up snake eyes.
Jeff Gordon's two-tire call proved the difference versus four fresh Goodyears for Johnson, as he scooted by his teammate with 16 laps left to take the victory in Sunday's Shelby American 400. Like clockwork, the reigning four-time champ is now the all-time leader in victories at 1½-mile tracks with 15, passing Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and "The King," Richard Petty. I have a funny feeling that's not the last record Johnson breaks by the time 2010 is over -- after all, just two more victories put him 10th on the series' all-time win list at just age 34. Like a dealer who keeps getting blackjack, how his organization spoiled the party in Sin City leads off the Five Things We Learned From Las Vegas:
1.) Hendrick Motorsports remains the team to beat. While dueling for the win, Gordon and Johnson made the rest of the field look like they never even reached Nevada. Lapping all but nine cars at one point, they pulled out to a six-second lead over the third-place car while leading 237 of 267 laps. The final Hendrick tally was 1-3-4 for Johnson/Gordon/Mark Martin, and even a 16th by Dale Earnhardt Jr. showed promise for a four-car team that hasn't skipped a beat since running 1-2-3 in points for the first time in history last season.
"We've shown already this year that we're very strong," said Gordon, forced to find a silver lining after leading all but 48 laps -- only to be passed by the No. 48 itself. "I think that we've stepped it up a notch.
"You never know within our own organization whether you're working on the right things over the offseason, if you've done every single thing that you feel like you could do to be competitive. It's nice to know we're doing the right things."
Maintaining that path to dominance at Hendrick has long included feeling they're never quite perfect, which is why it's no surprise Johnson spent his entire press conference Sunday trying to downplay the solid start.
"We can't sit still," he said. "Complacency is going to kill you. Richmond [in September] is a long way away from right now. We need to keep collecting points, winning races, make the Chase, then get to work for what we're really here for."
So far, they're well on their way, with only the Richard Childress Racing cars within striking distance at intermediates. Point leader Kevin Harvick was second again Sunday, but being the bridesmaid doesn't do much to dent the armor of their Chevy rivals.
2.) Matt Kenseth's new crew chief is working out. Lost in the shuffle of Hendrick dominance was Kenseth, who rode to a quiet fifth-place finish in just the second race with new crew chief Todd Parrott. That makes him one of just four drivers to start the season with three Top 10 finishes (Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and Greg Biffle are the others), leaving him tops in the Ford camp and up to fourth in points. Who would have put a number on those odds, considering the stick-and-ball equivalent of a head coach was removed in only the last 12 days?
"We're still in the honeymoon stage, but everything's been going good," Kenseth told me about their relationship. "Todd's been doing a real good job, he's real fired up to be part of this. And our guys are all fired up ... so it's been a fun couple of weeks." With teammate Biffle also flashing some speed, expect Roush to make a little noise next week at a track its usually successful at: Atlanta.
3.) Penske is off to a rough start. In my diary with Brad Keselowski, he's made it clear being the only Dodge team should be an advantage to Penske, if anything. But critics are raising their eyebrows after another rough start leaves all three cars outside the top 12 in points. Hometown boy Kurt Busch won the pole, but fell back before getting caught up in a Lap 93 wreck (we'll get to that in a minute), sending the No. 2 car reeling to 35th. That leaves him now 0-for-10 with Victory Lane at LVMS, snagging just two top 10 finishes to go along with three of 31st or worse.
But at least Busch had an excuse. Keselowski and Sam Hornish, Jr. never contended, with Kes falling prey to not one but two pit road penalties under green. As for Hornish, he spun on his own and limped to the finish three laps down, complaining bitterly about his horsepower over the radio. "Whoever thinks this motor program is acceptable ... where they pass you by two lengths down the other end, is [expletive]," he said, out of character for a guy who usually keeps his cool. But with no Penske car higher than 19th in points, it's clear the whole program needs to take a step back, cool down and regroup.
4.) Was Kim Kardashian playing with those caution lights? Here's something you don't see every day: having a caution brought out by the caution lights themselves. That happened not once but twice Sunday, as their sudden tendency to turn on at random caught drivers a little off guard, to say the least. "Nobody was slowing down," Harvick said on the first incident that occurred on Lap 54. Everyone thought that was a freak accident -- until it happened again over 50 laps later. "The second [time], the spotter didn't see the flag come out at the flagstand. You just had to run a little bit longer than you normally would when you think you see the caution lights. We were very dependent on [our spotters] today."
So what happened to make the lights go all out of whack, funny in hindsight but a serious safety issue when it happened? PR Jeff Motley made it clear it was a NASCAR problem, claiming he'd talked to maintenance, operations and the GM only to come up with no concrete answer. And, other than ditching their computers for a "manual" system midway through the race, NASCAR itself had no official statement at press time.
"We were told on the radio there were 'accidental' cautions," Jimmie Johnson joked. "I'm not sure what 'accidental' means, but maybe somebody leaned up against the switch and turned the lights on." Maybe grand marshal Kim Kardashian slipped in the officials' tower and pressed the wrong button? I don't know. Just expect this to appear on Mythbusters one day, as I doubt we'll ever get the real answer.
5.) Daytona 500 momentum lasts only so long. Friday, I asked Jamie McMurray about the Daytona 500 curse, where the last two winners failed to make the Chase. His answer? "I don't like you very much right now." Well, after Sunday he's now the one who's unpopular, stuck with a giant "Target" on his back after none other than his own teammate spewed real hatred for the 500 winner.
Instigating a three-car wreck on Lap 93, McMurray drifted high on a restart, hitting Montoya's left-rear bumper in a wreck that left both cars crushed and his teammate's temper flaring. "McMurray run me high, and then he run me in the fence!" he said, summarizing a radio transmission packed with swears. "I know he's an [expletive] driver, but come on." His wife even got in the act, twittering in Spanish that the No. 1 car would be better off driven by a clown.
But there's reason to be upset; the Colombian's second straight 37th-place finish already puts him 127 points out of the Chase three races in. McMurray's 34th wasn't much better, leaving the curse of the Harley J. Earl trophy very much intact.
Underdog Shout-Out Of The Week: How about Regan Smith, whose No. 78 Furniture Row team wound up finishing on the lead lap in 21st. That puts it 25th in the owner standings, the highest of any single-car team three weeks into the season. "This is a greatly improved race team," he said afterward. "Everyone is upbeat. We have a little ways to go ... but we'll get there."
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Race Grade: B-. Gordon and Johnson ran away from the field, but their stirring battle made for a finish worth watching. I just hope enough people stopped watching the USA-Canada hockey game to tune in.
What are your thoughts on the race? E-mail Tom at email@example.com and you can appear in his SI Mailbag column this Tuesday!