Was Tony Stewart about to cry? Is Jimmie Johnson's reign coming to an end? And is Carl Edwards now the driver to beat? These are the burning questions following Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
For most of the 267 laps, Stewart was untouchable. He led 163 of them, and even when he incurred a penalty on pit road for dragging an air hose it was only a matter of time before he worked his way back to the front. What he couldn't make up for, however, was Edwards and crew chief Bob Osbourne taking only two tires on their final pit stop, enabling them to leapfrog in front of Stewart, who had to take four.
When the final pit stops cycled through, Edwards held a two-second lead over Stewart, who had dropped to third. Though he had fresher tires, Stewart was never close to catching Edwards, who's now won three of the last five Cup races dating back to last season.
As Edwards celebrated with his customary back flip, Stewart was left shell shocked, wondering how he lost a race he had thoroughly dominated.
"Second sucks," a visibly shaken Stewart said after the race. "We just gave one away today."
The consolation is that Stewart is now the points leader, tied with Kurt Busch. But the look on his face told an entirely different story. Glazed eyed and agitated, Stewart appeared inconsolable.
"I probably should, but that's not in my makeup," Stewart said when asked whether he took solace in his overall good start. "It kills me to throw a race away like that. … I'm sure tomorrow when the emotion dies down we'll look back and say it was a great weekend, but just man, it does not sit good right now."
On the flip side is Edwards, who has undergone a total transformation from a year ago. Last season at this time he was mired in a lengthy winless streak, hadn't even led a single lap and was grinding just to finish in the top 15. In three races this season, he's finished second in the Daytona 500, won the pole at Phoenix where he was the driver to beat before a wreck took him out and notched the victory Sunday in Las Vegas.
Three entirely different tracks and Edwards has been fast at all of them.
"This is the best start to a season that I've ever had," Edwards said. "Daytona could have gone any way. … Phoenix was a very strong performance from everyone; there was a little bit of bad luck there. Today, I felt like we had a solid top-three car all day. That's three different types of racetracks with success on all three. I'm really excited about this season."
Team owner Jack Roush said it's way too early to start thinking championship but added that this season "feels more like 2008 – even better."
In that 2008 season, Edwards won a series-high nine races, scored more points over the entire season than anyone and went toe-to-toe with Johnson in the Chase only to come up 69 points short. If Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing are better now than they were then, Johnson's reign is, indeed, in trouble.
So far this season, Johnson has been wholly unremarkable. That's not necessarily news. For him, slow starts have been more the norm than the exception. However, what should trouble the No. 48 camp is that they were chasing to find the right setup throughout the entirety of Sunday's race, actually went a lap down at one point and wound up 16th, which is about where they should have finished.
"We started pretty far off but we made some real smart adjustments and got the car real close and then at the end we had a couple of bad things go our way – a bad [pit] stop," Johnson said. "But for a while we had momentum going our way and we worked our way to a decent finish and then had a little trouble late."
The word panic is not in Johnson's makeup. He didn't show any signs of going off the rails when he went into last season's finale trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points, so don't expect him to now. Regardless of how many wins they do or don't pick up between now and September, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus will have their stuff together when the Chase rolls around. We know that because they always do.
When the Chase does arrive, Johnson, as the five-time defending champion, will be the driver to beat. But right now, on a weekly basis, that distinction goes to Edwards.