Vegas will give a true reading on the early results of 2011.

“Tells,” card sharps call them. They’re the subtle signals that betray a gambler’s true stature. Is he really holding a high-horsepower hand, or is he just bluffing? As the Cup series heads to Vegas for the first of the intermediate-track races that dominate the schedule, here’s an early assessment of where the high-rollers stand.


Hold ’em


Jimmie Johnson

The five-time defending champion struggled at Daytona, but that’s nothing new. He hasn’t had a top-20 finish, let alone a top-10, in the Daytona 500 since he won it in 2006. His third-place finish at Phoenix, the 10th straight top-five he’s had there, is the truer indicator of where things are with the 48 team. Vegas, where Johnson has won three of the last five races, should propel him comfortably into the top 10, where he’s likely to stay.


Jeff Gordon

Maybe the momentum has finally shifted. In recent year’s Gordon’s m.o. has been to run up front all day and then stumble at the end. At Phoenix the stumble came early, when he bumped the wall after an encounter with Carl Edwards. But he recovered, made a late pass on Kyle Busch, and ended a drought of almost two years. Running up front at Vegas hasn’t been the problem for Gordon, but can he close the deal for the first time in a decade?


Carl Edwards

Forget the crash at Phoenix. Remember the two straight wins to close 2010. And the career-best Daytona finish of second to start 2011. And last weekend’s pole. And the 21 laps led. And this: On a day when he clearly had a chance to win, Edwards got taken out by Kyle Busch — but didn’t retaliate. Even Busch, who said Edwards tried to slow his progress after the incident but nothing more, seemed surprised. “It was weird,” said Busch. “He just — he was playing.” All those signs bode well for a solid Chase run.


Kurt Busch

Daytona, where Busch won the Shootout and a 150-mile qualifier, was no surprise. He was an early adopter of the “tandem drafting” that defined this year’s 500. His eighth-place finish last Sunday was no shock either; he’s had five top-10s in his last six Phoenix starts. But his average finish in his last five Vegas starts has been 27.6. So if he runs well this Sunday, the turn-around is for real.


Kyle Busch

The Busch brothers return to their hometown, Las Vegas, holding the top two spots in points, the only two drivers to have finished in the top 10 in the season’s first two races. What’s been most impressive about Kyle’s performance is that he crashed early at both Daytona and Phoenix and fought back into contention. If that’s a sign that he’s learning to temper his temper, then he could be unbeatable not only at Las Vegas (where he won two years ago) but every other stop on the Cup tour.


Fold ’em


Jeff Burton

Two years ago, as a four-car team, Richard Childress Racing struggled mightily. Last year RCR contracted to three teams, and all three drivers — Burton, along with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer — made the Chase. This year RCR added a fourth driver, Paul Menard — and he’s the only one in the top 10 so far. Burton, in 32nd, is in the toughest straits. If things don’t turn soon, look for the crew chief shuffle to start again.


Greg Biffle

The story at RFR is similar to the one at RCR: After a bounce-back season in 2010, expectations at Roush-Fenway were high for 2011. So far, however, only one of the team’s four drivers, Carl Edwards, has come close to meeting those expectations. For the rest — particularly Biffle, who is languishing in 28th — the first two races have been a disaster. Granted, it’s still early. But Roush, like Childress, isn’t likely to stand pat for too long.




A.J. Allmendinger

Is his third-place position in points a fluke, or an indication that RPM has righted its ship? Vegas, where Allmendinger’s average finish is 29th, will be the litmus test.


Kevin Harvick

He’s the anti-Allmendinger; after seeing him near the top of the standings for all of 2010, it’s jarring to find him outside the top 20. But the question again is: just a fluke, a function of a blown engine at Daytona and the new parsimonious points system? Like the “river” card in Texas hold ’em, Vegas should provide clarity.


ONE TO WATCH: Jeff Gordon

WHY HE MATTERS: Phoenix win ended 66-race losing streak.

WHAT HE SAYS: “They dropped the green flag and I knew that we had something special.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: Next up: Vegas, where Gordon is the all-time lap leader.


NEXT RACE Kobalt Tools 400, Las Vegas Motor Speedway

THE LOWDOWN In poker, an underdog can go to Vegas and beat the top dogs. Doesn’t work that way in NASCAR. Only seven active Sprint Cup drivers have won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and six of those were in the Chase last year. (The absentee was Mark Martin, hardly anybody’s idea of an upstart.) Further, in 10 of the 13 Vegas races to date, the winner has gone on to finish in the top five in the season standings, including five champions. In other words, you can go ahead and pencil Sunday’s winner into the Chase.



2010     Jimmie Johnson

2009 Kyle Busch

2008     Carl Edwards

2007     Jimmie Johnson

2006     Jimmie Johnson



TRACK: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Las Vegas, Nev.), 1.5-mile oval

RACE LENGTH: 267 laps, 400 miles




Quote of note

 “We are just glad to get out of here with what we got.” – Kyle Busch, who won the Camping World truck and Nationwide series races at Phoenix, finished second in the Sprint Cup race, and assumed the points lead.


Where to watch

Sunday’s pre-race show on Fox starts at 2:30 EST, followed by the race at 3:00.



Can’t beat the house

Since Las Vegas Motor Speedway was reconfigured in 2007, Jeff Gordon has led 366 laps, almost twice as many as any other driver, and 33 percent of the total laps run (see chart). But he hasn’t won any of the four races in that stretch, and his average finish has been 11.5. That’s only slightly better than Denny Hamlin’s average finish (13.2), even though Hamlin has never led a single lap at Las Vegas.


Phoenix rising

Phoenix International Raceway will have a decidedly different look when the Sprint Cup series returns for the season’s penultimate race in November. In addition to repaving the track, speedway officials will reconfigure the quirky one-mile oval with variable banking. The track, which was built in 1964, has not been repaved since 1990. Worn as it was, the track went out in style, with Carl Edwards setting a Sprint Cup qualifying record of 137.279 mph.



Gordon’s win at Phoenix was the 83rd of his Sprint Cup career, tying him with Cale Yarborough for fifth on the all-time list. Gordon is the active leader in Sprint Cup wins, with 30 more than teammate Jimmie Johnson, who is next on the active list.



Las Vegas lap leaders*


RANK          DRIVER               LAPS LED         

1          Jeff Gordon               366

2          Jimmie Johnson          199

3          Kyle Busch               112

4          Carl Edwards          91

5          Matt Kenseth          80

6          Jeff Burton               75

7          Greg Biffle               44

8          Dale Earnhardt Jr.          18

9          Mark Martin               16

10          Kasey Kahne          14

11 (tie)     Tony Stewart          13

11           Clint Bowyer          13

13          Kevin Harvick          11         

14           Bobby Labonte          3

15          Martin Truex Jr.          2

16 (tie)     Kurt Busch               1

16          Robby Gordon          1

16          Joey Logano          1

16          Ryan Newman          1

16          J.J. Yeley               1

*Since 2007