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Just two races into the NASCAR season, but some trends are emerging. But what to make of Penske's jump to Ford?

 The NASCAR boys are back in town and on The Strip. And out at the track, another Roush versus Hendrick battle brewing? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Doesn't look like great golfing at the moment: chilly, quite blustery but sunny as NASCAR teams and fans hit town, fresh from Phoenix, for Sunday's Las Vegas 400…and digesting the first bombshell of the season, as they await that 80-degree weekend weather promised.

    It's still not clear just what the full ramifications might be of Roger Penske's pending jump from Chrysler-Dodge to Ford at the end of the season.
    But first off, Penske's move would appear to put Ford's long-time number one, Jack Roush, on the hot seat.
    A new NASCAR rivalry brewing perhaps?
    An engine room rivalry almost certainly, with Roush and Doug Yates no longer holding monopoly on what is currently the top motor in the sport, Ford's FR9.
    Penske has his own considerable engine operation, and he has access to some of the top engine designers in the world. And Penske didn't get to where he was by playing second fiddle.
   This won't be Penske's first run with Fords; he made the jump from GM-Pontiac in 1994, and he won 23 races with Rusty Wallace in Ford over 10 years. (During that span Roush won 48.)
   Ironically AJ Allmendinger, one of Penske's two drivers, just made the move himself from Ford, from the Roush-Petty camp, when sponsorship problems arose. Allmendinger wound up with one of the best-financed rides in the business, sponsored by Shell.
   And Penske has one of the sport's new up-and-comers in Brad Keselowski, who is rapidly becoming a fan favorite (adding how many Twitter followers during that Monday night Daytona 500 for his in-car coverage via cell phone?)
  The early season scorecard: Matt Kenseth over Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle at Daytona, Denny Hamlin at Phoenix.
   Now maybe Carl Edwards here?
   Edwards won last spring's Las Vegas 400. And only then did he reveal to car owner Jack Roush his pre-race promotion included an 800-foot bungee leap of faith off the Stratosphere on The Strip: "Yes, you've got all the safety equipment, but still when you walk to the edge and look over and down….."
   Happy times here, Carl Edwards (L) and Ryan Newman. But down in Phoenix the other day.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Among the other story lines this week:

   -- Kurt Busch, back in his hometown, but still looking for that first big win here. (The 14 winners at this 1-1/2-mile track: Jeff  Burton, Kyle Busch, Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth, Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin.)
   Growing up in Vegas isn't quite like growing up in any other town in America: "You head to The Strip," Busch says. "I'd pile six, seven or eight guys in my Volkswagen Bug and we'd go down to The Strip and loiter. That's just what you do when you grow up in Vegas."
   The Strip. Alive this week with the usual Cirque du Soleils and peepshows and magicians and lounge singers.
   And if you really get bored, or want to get a leg up in Zombie shooting, one guns-and-ammo shop is offering a Zombie hunting package, with an AK-47, Uzi, 9mm Glock and a shotgun, for $139.95. And you get a tee-shirt too.
   Hey, this is the West, and it's Vegas, and just about anything goes.



Las Vegas Motor Speedway: at the northern end of The Strip. And remind me once again how Bruton Smith won this track in a poker game with Bill France Jr.? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Now only a couple weeks into the season it may be unfair to judge too much, but the sense is that Busch will have to push new team owner James Finch to step up his game.
    Finch runs one of the smaller teams on the tour, and the team has been somewhat hit-or-miss over the years. But Busch, as one of the top drivers in the sport, is easily the most demanding, and most talented drivers, Finch has ever had at the wheel.
    Can Finch give Busch great cars week after week? Busch, at this crucial point in his career, is certainly driven to produce, if Finch can match him.

   Busch has never won at his hometown track. But then it is one of the most notorious on the circuit, in part perhaps because NASCAR – inexplicably, to be honest – only stops here once a year. And early in the season at that.
    Vegas, the market, just begs for a spot in the NASCAR playoffs…easily more so than Chicago or a few others in the fall.
    And Vegas, the track, is just doggone mean. Ask Jeff Gordon about that.
    It's tricky too.

    It's been a while since Carl Edwards got to celebrate......one year now (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "It's a tough track," Busch concedes. "I've only scored one top-five finish; and since they repaved it, I have struggled.
    "It's a place that can jump up and bite you quickly.
    "Getting the car to handle in turns three and four is the hardest part. The sun really bears down on turns three and four, making those turns pretty slick.
   "Turns one and two are in the shade for the biggest part of the race. So your car may be handling really well in turns one and two, and then you can end up sliding in three and four.
    "It's a challenge to find a nice balance."

   Other story lines:

   -- This has been a classic Jack Roush Ford track. Or perhaps that should be a classic Roush-versus-Rick Hendrick track; they've won 12 of the 14 Cup races.
  However at Phoenix last weekend – the first of the tour's downforce tracks -- five of the top 10 were in Toyotas; all three Joe Gibbs drivers, and two Michael Waltrip men, Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin.
   Granted, at Phoenix that ugly end-game of fuel mileage raised its head. But Sunday's 500 here could easily become another fuel mileage game.
   One big twist on the fuel mileage games this season is the new electronic fuel injection system, which has shown problems – with Joey Logano at Daytona and with Tony Stewart at Phoenix. When it comes down to a driver trying to save gas, the EFI systems appear a bit flakey.


If Sunday's Vegas 400 is another Hendrick-Roush showdown, then Jimmie Johnson (L, here with Rick Hendrick) may be the man to give Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle fits (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Greg Biffle says EFI problems will likely get worse: "There are going to be growing pains with this system. It hasn't even been hot yet. Wait till it gets hot, like at Indy.
    "We don't know how much heat these (EFI) things can handle, and that may be an issue at some point: Cam sensors not recognizing when you shut it off and you aren't using the starter but you are using the clutch.
    "There are all kinds of technology…Like you can't 'cycle' the battery switch because it will go into boot mode."
   -- The post-game analysis from Phoenix is that drivers want tires that stick better. And when the stock car tour returns to Phoenix for the fall playoffs, Goodyear might be coming with a different,  more sticky tire. Or at least Jimmie Johnson hopes so.
   "The track has worked so hard to put rubber down and get us multiple lanes," Johnson says. "But we need to maybe get a little better tire. Not a 'better' tire, just a different tire -- that would fire off a little bit earlier (off the corners) and let us move around sooner. It takes five or six laps before we can really have confidence in the set-up and lean on it.
    "I understand why we have this tire, because it's a safe tire and we don't have any issues. But hopefully they can give us more grip, and I think it will help make better racing."
   Jeff Gordon agrees: "I like the (Phoenix) track; it's the tire I'm not a big fan of.
    "I am going to beg Goodyear to change this tire. The track has come in pretty good where they can really start investing some time in the next step on the tire…because this one is unpredictable, inconsistent, and doesn't allow us to race the way the track is capable of."

The Busch Bros, Kurt (L) and Kyle. Hometown heroes, but they've got their work cut out here against the Hendrick guys and the Roush guys. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   -- Carl Edwards. That incident last weekend with Ryan Newman may still be on Newman's mind: "I'm 99 percent sure Carl didn't do that on purpose; but I trusted him. Now he can't trust me…because there is a lot to be had and lost, and we lost a lot. 
    "I don't consider that a deliberate move, by any means. (But) we know in this sport, what comes around goes around."
    Of course Roush, after losing last year's championship, says he wants his teams to do more gambling this season. And Edwards, remember, is still looking for his first tour win since right here one year ago.

   -- If you're making up an office pool on this 400, consider that the best drivers at this track over the 14 years have been Gordon, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Biffle, Stewart, Edwards, and Matt Kenseth.
   Biffle is way overdue. His last tour win was in October 2010, in Kansas City.
   Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia have been together now six months. And….
   Biffle is a fast driver, but last season he had erratic finishes. And Puccia is still relatively unknown. The crew is new too.
   So the chemistry and dynamic has changed in this team.
   Apparently for the good: With thirds at Daytona and Phoenix, Biffle points to Puccia's "leadership and decision-making on pit road" as key to the change.
   However also keep an eye on Joey Logano this weekend. He was stout at Daytona and stout again at Phoenix.
   More so than that is the amped-up, positive attitude Logano is bringing to the track this season. Logano, like many drivers, is a momentum player, and right now ol' mo' is on his side, and it shows. New crew chief Jason Ratcliffe might be ready to celebrate.

   Now it just wouldn't be Vegas without girls wearing funny outfits. Nope, this isn't just another tour stop.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

NASCAR had better do what it

NASCAR had better do what it takes to keep Dodge in the series. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for underdogs. I am not the only one that feels that way, either.
I have never been a Robbie Gordon fan, but if he is the only team running a Dodge next year, I will be pulling for him.
Penske has a history of going to the highest bidder. He ran Chevy's in Trans Am before switching to AMC. You didn't mention that he ran Mercurys (basically Fords) in 1976 when he left AMC after four years of running limited schedules with them in NASCAR. Bobby Allison won a lot of lifelong diehard fans, including me, when he went back to AMC on his own in 1977. There is a lesson there for NASCAR that can be applied to Dodge's situation today.

and i seem to remember one

and i seem to remember one bill elliott buying up penske's old ford stuff back when, to open his nascar career....

i always hear that drivers

i always hear that drivers cannot go below the line to advance their position, and denny had already technically passed newman before he went below the line, so that's confusing. Then again this is NASCAR, and they always tend to make up rules as they go.

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