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LAS VEGAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY may not have the history of Daytona, the intensity of Bristol or the mystique of Talladega, but this 10-year-old track, laid out in a desert valley north of the Strip, does boast one thing those more celebrated venues can't: It hosts the single most revealing race of the Sprint Cup season. If a team can win on this 1.5-mile, D-shaped speedway on the third race weekend of the year, chances are it is going to excel in the 12 other races on intermediate-length tracks the rest of the season (including six in the Chase). And that's the key to winning the Cup.
" Las Vegas is a great barometer for us," says Alan Gustafson, the Hendrick Motorsports crew chief for Casey Mears, noting that the season-opening Daytona 500 is run on a 2.5-mile superspeedway and the second race is held on a relatively flat, two-mile track in Fontana, Calif. "There are a lot of long runs here, pit strategy is critical, and you've got to have a good motor to make it to the end. The cream always rises here."
Indeed, in four of the last seven years the eventual Cup-winning driver won at Vegas—a trend that bodes well for the title hopes of Carl Edwards, who took the checkered flag in Sunday's UAW-Dodge 400. It was Edwards's second win in as many races, and his ascendance to the top of the point standings is reflective of the rise of Roush Fenway Racing this season. (The number 99 Ford passed postrace inspection, but because of an "issue"—the lid was off the oil tank box—NASCAR may hand Edwards a minor points penalty.) RFR drivers finished first, third ( Greg Biffle) and seventh ( David Ragan) at Vegas, and that performance confirmed what owner Jack Roush has been saying for weeks: RFR no longer trails Hendrick in what was formerly known as the Car of Tomorrow. "We got our asses kicked last year by Hendrick," says Biffle. "We got sick of it, made changes and worked our tails off to get where we are today."
During a team meeting last May, Roush apologized to his crew chiefs and drivers for not testing the new generation of car as vigorously as his rivals did before the 2007 season. As a result, none of the RFR drivers were serious Cup contenders. It wasn't until midway through last season that Roush launched a dedicated, eight-man test team that traveled to tracks in Iowa, Virginia, Tennessee and Wisconsin, laying down laps in the new car and analyzing data.
The work paid off, as Edwards gave Roush Fenway two CoT wins, at Bristol on Aug. 25 and at Dover on Sept. 23. And RFR's performance on Sunday at NASCAR's most telling proving ground indicates that the gap between Hendrick and the other elite teams is closing quickly. While Hendrick's Dale Earnhardt Jr. chased Edwards to the finish line for second place and Mears was 13th at Vegas, a harrowing accident knocked Jeff Gordon out of the race, and Jimmie Johnson struggled throughout, finishing 29th.
"I love intermediate-length tracks because I love the pace of laps," says Edwards. "Plus, now we've got just really good cars for these types of tracks. I just hope it continues."
Bet on it. In NASCAR, what happens in Vegas rarely stays in Vegas.