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Guy Noir's California-Vegas gumshoe stakeout review: Hey, how about Labonte and Reutimann!


Bobby Labonte and crew chief Todd Parrott may be the early season darkhorse team (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   So what have we learned on NASCAR's first West Coast swing…aside from the vaguely uneasy weirdness of NASCAR posting Bobby Ginn as second in the team owner championship standings, just 18 points behind Rick Hendrick?
   Well, that this may be a springtime of the weird.
   With 100 miles of cautions Sunday, a record, in the 427, it's looking like many of these drivers have forgotten how to drive. Maybe that testing ban has affected them as much as the teams.
   And that came after a crash-fest Nationwide 300 Saturday, which had 12 cautions, with nearly half the field failing to finish. Winner Greg Biffle said that marathon was like running the 24 Hours of Daytona.
   The California 500 may have been a snooze-fest (for some 70,000), but none of the 130,000 here could complain about any shortage of action.
   So, for NASCAR's marketers, one big question this week is why can't the two-mile California track put on action-packed events like this 1-1/2-mile place?
   NASCAR officials, meanwhile, need to take note of pit road, which has been the site of too many near disasters. The pit road here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a tough one for drivers, with some issues that NASCAR needs to address. Jeff Gordon showed that, He was slowing to come off the racing groove onto pit road, but the transition area is difficult. Gordon missed the mark, slid his tires, and blew one. That incident could well have been disastrous if Gordon's car had skidded back up into the racing groove.
   And then someone should really remind all these drivers that the first few weeks of a new season it's most important not to beat yourself.
   Already Dale Earnhardt Jr. may be a write-off for this year's championship playoffs, though the cut doesn't come till September and it's only March.
   But then that may only make Dale Jr. all the more dangerous….and he's certainly been a weapon out on the track this season.
   Big stories at Vegas – Bobby Labonte and David Reutimann.
   Yes, Kyle Busch won the Shelby 427, with a very determined display of work at the wheel. And he could easily have two wins and a third in his first three Sprint Cup starts.
   But, hey, the kid won eight times last year on the Cup tour alone, and Jeff Gordon, no less, says he's the most talented driver in the sport.


David Reutimann: Ready for a breakout? (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

Reutimann, on the other hand, has been an up-and-comer the past two seasons, working with Michael Waltrip's sometimes hexed operation. So Reutimann may finally be ready to reap some rewards.
   And Labonte, who is at the other end of the spectrum, at 44, trying to resuscitate his career. He hasn't won since, gosh, 2003? But now with Doug Yates and Jack Roush, and with cagey Todd Parrott as crew chief, Labonte is showing signs of a rebound in the making.

   Tony Stewart?
   He was off to a great start as owner-driver, at Daytona and California. But Vegas, well, wasn't very pretty.
    Stewart wound up 26th, but he was comfortable with Darian Grubb's car in clean air, and was running fourth midway when a loose left-rear wheel cost him two laps.
    "We had a solid car all day, definitely a top-five car," Stewart said.
   "There are still question marks, I'm sure, with a lot of people: 'Can we do this?' Three weeks in a row we've run well. 
    "We didn't get the finish we deserved here, but we had a good performance on the track.
    "Every time I leave the track, it gives me confidence we're going to be something to contend with at the end of the year."
    Ironically, or not, teammate Ryan Newman had the same loose wheel issue. He was running 13th with 150 miles to go when he lost two laps to change it, and finished 25th.

   Waltrip's operation?
    Waltrip himself struggled again, after good runs at Daytona and California.
   But Reutimann finished fourth Sunday, a career-best. And he was, like many men, sweating fuel mileage at the end: "Rodney Childers (his crew chief) said 'We're close.'  I'm like 'How close?' He said 'Really close.'"
    Finally a top-five. "You are just relieved, if anything. You run around here a couple of years, trying to get close to winning one of these things…and we're a little closer.
    "People say 'Well, it's a fluke,' or 'They lucked out.'  But we started about last and came up through there up into the top-10 -- and had an oil leak and went back to about 25th, and drove back up through there, and ended up getting a top-five finish. 
   "I'm absolutely thrilled. Having to go to the back (for the start, after changing engines), after having a great qualifying run….
   "Rodney said 'Just keep calm, and we'll keep working on this thing.'
   "We developed an oil leak at the midpoint, and the guys got that fixed… 
    "It's not as easy as it looks. Kyle Busch makes it look like he can just walk out there and finish in the top-five."



Kyle Busch, here victoriously kissing the Vegas asphalt, is off to another hot start on the NASCAR tour (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

Busch made it look easy again here Sunday, but Busch says it certainly wasn't as pretty as it could have been.
   "We didn't have the best car, but I drove a smart race and we did what we needed to do,"  Busch says.
   "Fortunately that caution that caught everybody on pit road (during a routine round of green flag stops) was a savior in our day. It got the guys that were faster than us behind us, and we were able to run our own pace.
   "Then Bobby Labonte was chasing me at the end, and I thought we were going to come to the checkered battling him.
    "We had a couple more cautions at the end that really made me nervous too."

    Brian Vickers, one of the Toyota men who had to start from the rear of the field after engine problems, has been knocking on the door….only to keep having it slam shut on his fingers:  "We got behind when we lost the engine and then had to redo it again twice.
    "We had a really good car most of the day -- fighting track position. Then we lost our batteries and had to come in to change.
   "I think we had a car that could have won….but to have all those problems and get a top-10, that's how you win championships."
    But Toyota's engine issues – which other teams are dealing with too – are nagging.
    Has Lee White, the Toyota boss, got it all fixed now?
   "I wish I could answer that," Vickers says. "Until they get back to the engine shop and analyze everything, they don't really know either. 
    "We just know we have an issue.
   "You have to push it to the limit, and sometimes it's going to wreck a car, so I understand that. But it can't be an every week issue. We've got to get that problem fixed."

   And rookie Joey Logano?
   "We just kept our nose clean the whole day, kept out of the wrecks…stayed with the main plan, and that was to finish," Logano, 13th, said.
    A late-race fuel gamble might have made it, but he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli played it safe: "We could have made it," Logano says. "I think we were eighth at the time, and eighth would have been awesome. 
    'We probably should have finished 10th, looking at it now. Just mistakes on my part. No big deal; we learned."
   With 14 cautions Logano got to learn a lot about restarts, which are some of the most dangerous moments of the race.
    "You can watch on TV how crazy it gets," Logano says. "You're trying to get every last inch when it comes down to the end. 
    "That's the part where it gets hairy."
    So, after three races….."At Daytona I wasn't that good at all…I feel I'm getting better. The last two races, California and here, we were good by the end of the race. We've got to work on getting good earlier."

So just what can Todd Parrott and Crew do this season with new driver Bobby Labonte? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



"Action-Packed" Vegas Was Action-Packed For The Wrong Reasons

A surface that came under criticism. A bevy of crashes. A pile of restarts hiding that there wasn't a lot of passing all day. This is what Vegas (and Bruton Smith racetracks) mean by "action-packed." The only differences between Fontana and Vegas were the number of yellows, the size of the track, the winners involved, and the ownership groups involved; other than that the two races were pretty much the same.

If NASCAR is going to take a look at pit road, they first have to look at the rule closing pit road when the yellow comes out. I remember the days (pre-March 1989) when NASCAR didn't do that; cars dove into the pits before taking the yellow or one lap after, and mass-pitting was not as frequent or as crowded as it's been since that rule was put in place, and it sure wasn't as dangerous as it's been with that rule.

Stop closing pit road; let them dive into the pits before or after taking the yellow; then we won't need these tedious pit speed limits that just give the officiating tower more control of the racing than they have any right to have.

Bobby Labonte running strong - not surprising. A Michael Waltrip car running strong - a shock that will wear off by June.

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