It's not an overstatement to say Saturday night's LifeLock.com 400 is the most important race of the season for Carl Edwards.
He doesn't have to win, and he doesn't even have to run up front. But what he and his team do have to do is leave Chicagoland Speedway feeling like they've made some progress in their 1.5-mile program.
The reason Edwards was pegged as the preseason favorite to win this year's Sprint Cup title was because last year he owned the 1.5-mile tracks. Eight of his series-high nine wins in 2008 came on intermediate tracks, and considering that 1.5-milers make up half of the 10-race Chase schedule, Edwards became the popular pick to unseat Jimmie Johnson in 2009.
But halfway through this season, Edwards remains winless.
Though much attention has been paid to the fact that he hasn't been to victory lane once in the first 18 races of 2009, the bigger objective now for Edwards and the entire 99 team is searching for the edge they had on the field a year ago – an edge that they seem to have lost. This means using Saturday night's race to search for what they've been missing and begin to set themselves up to be on top of their game when the Chase begins in September.
If they leave Chicagoland feeling like they've accomplished something, then Edwards could still emerge as a challenger to what's shaping up to be a two-man battle for the Sprint Cup between Johnson and Tony Stewart. But if Edwards and crew don't, it will be an opportunity lost, leaving them with only one more shot – next month at Atlanta – to try to recapture the magic on the 1.5-mile ovals. That's cutting things close, too close probably, for Edwards to be the challenger the prognosticators said he'd be way back in February.
Here are five other storylines to watch for in Saturday's LifeLock.com 400:
1. Will Kyle Busch pay back Tony Stewart?
Contrary to what Stewart said earlier this week, he and Busch are not on the same page.
Speaking for the first time since the last-lap incident at Daytona, Busch said he considers what Stewart did "a dump."
Earlier in the week, Stewart said he called Busch to check on him and characterized the conversation as the two being on the "same page." That may have been the case on the phone, but clearly wasn't so on Thursday.
"I don't know," Busch said. "I really don't have feelings. It didn't mean a whole lot. I thank him for, I guess, checking on me to make sure I was alive."
What appears to be eating at Busch isn't just the contact with Stewart that sent him crashing into the frontstretch wall, but a tap Stewart gave Busch as the two were coming out of Turn 4. That slowed Busch and allowed Stewart to make a move to the lead.
Had it not been for the tap, Busch probably wouldn't have been in a position to have to block Stewart.
What happened after that is up for debate. Most drivers, including Stewart, have characterized the crash as a product of restrictor-plate racing. But Busch clearly thinks otherwise, believing that Stewart turned into him, not the other way around.
"It would be considered a dump," Busch said.
Don't expect an eye-for-an-eye payback from Busch, but don't be surprised if Busch uses his bumper liberally anytime he is racing Stewart for position, because in Busch's mind the precedent has clearly been set.
Keselowski, who has won a race this season, is entered into Saturday's race. That alone isn't that intriguing. However, what is intriguing is the fact that Keselowski will have Tony Eury Jr. as his crew chief.
In case you're new to NASCAR, or somehow avoided turning on a television for the last two months, Eury used to crew for Earnhardt until team owner Rick Hendrick pulled the plug on that not-so-dynamic duo in late May. Since then, Eury has been hanging out away from the track, spending time with his family and working in the Hendrick race shop on a research and development basis.
Now he's back, and if Keselowski finishes ahead of Earnhardt, there will no doubt be a vocal fan base that will quickly wonder if the problems surrounding NASCAR's most popular driver all along had nothing to do with Eury, but rather Earnhardt himself.
"To go out here and say that my goal this weekend is to out-run Dale Jr., no," Eury said. "We're going to run good in this race, we're going to have fun, and if that happens then I will just let people think what they want."
One race is an unfair sampling, really, far too small to make any educated deductions. But it will happen. Bet on it.
3. Who will be shaken up in the standings?
Mark Martin was the big loser leaving Daytona. Despite his three wins, Martin dropped to 13th in the standings, 65 points out of the top 12.
If past results are an indicator, then expect Kasey Kahne to be the big loser this weekend, relinquishing his position at No. 12. Kahne's yet to finish in the top 10 in five starts at Chicagoland Speedway and has finished on the lead lap only twice.
On the flip side, Chicagoland is a favorite of Brian Vickers, who will start on the pole. Vickers has two top 10s in four starts on the 1.5-mile oval in suburban Chicago. He'll need another to trim some of the 168 points that stand between him in 17th and Kahne in 12th.
4. Who will hit the set up?
We see it every time the tour hits an intermediate track, where one or two drivers dominate the action. That driver a year ago at Chicagoland was Kyle Busch, who led 165 of 267 laps.
Jimmie Johnson, who qualified third, has been extremely happy with his car all weekend and is certainly a driver to watch.
"I think this place is really coming into its own," Johnson said. "I think we're going to see a great race on Saturday. There's no telling with the weather what's going to happen between tonight and when we race on Saturday. But I'm excited for it. I think we're going to put on a great race."
5. Say goodbye to TNT:
TNT wraps up its broadcast schedule this weekend and will give way to ESPN/ABC to bring things home from July 26 through Nov. 22.
Through its six-race run, the TNT broadcast has gotten typically mixed reviews.
The highs include last weekend's side-by-side broadcast in which the network used a split screen for commercials. That meant fans at home got to view every single green-flag lap.
The lows included the incessant oohing and ahhing from analysis Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach, as well as Bill Weber's early departure, though some viewers at home were more than happy to see Ralph Sheheen take over play-by-play duties.
After an off week, ESPN will kick off its portion of the broadcast schedule with the Brickyard 400 on July 26. Dr. Jerry Punch will call the action, with Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree providing the analysis.