CUP: Midweek NASCAR Notebook

JUNIOR RED HOT — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been outspoken about how well the Gen-6 Chevrolet SS fits his driving style.

Little wonder that Earnhardt is off to the second-best start of his NSCS career. With second- and fifth-place finishes in the 2013 season’s opening races, Junior is second in the standings, eight points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. That’s just behind Earnhardt’s best start. In 2004, he won the Daytona 500 and followed up with a fifth-place performance at North Carolina Motor Speedway to hold the series points lead.

"This is a good sign for us … that we’ve improved this much at Phoenix," said Earnhardt, who led 47 laps after starting 21st. "Hopefully, it’s a sign for the rest of the season and that we’re going to be all right."

Earnhardt is slated to do double duty this weekend, also entering his No. 88 Chevrolet in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series Sam’s Town 300. He has yet to win in either division at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

CHAMPIONS HAVING AT IT — The offseason has done little to turn down the heat on last year’s Johnson-Brad Keselowski rivalry. The two battled each other for the title down to the season’s final laps. They’ve raced side-by-side in decision time at both Daytona and Phoenix.

Johnson has a decisive statistical edge in Las Vegas. He’s the leading winner with four victories. Three of those wins came during championship seasons, most recently in 2010. Johnson’s Driver Rating of 110.9 leads all competitors. Keselowski has yet to post a top-10 in four Las Vegas appearances.

EDWARDS LIKES NEW CREW CHIEF — It’s open to debate whether a 70-race winless streak or the inability to reach last year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ made Carl Edwards irrelevant.

Edwards, however, rendered the argument moot with last weekend’s victory at Phoenix International Raceway in which he led 122 laps and held off champions Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski in a green-white-checkers shoot-out.

Now it’s on to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Edwards can savor memories of his 2011 Kobalt Tools 400 victory without the baggage of two years of losses.

"I'm more excited to go to Vegas than I've been in a long time," said Edwards of Sunday’s third race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. "[I’m] very pumped."

Perhaps Edwards should tip his helmet to former teammate Matt Kenseth the next time they pass in the garage. Because of Kenseth’s move to Joe Gibbs Racing, longtime crew chief Jimmy Fennig became available.

Roush Fenway Racing owner Jack Roush elected to shift Fennig and a majority of the No. 17 team’s crew to Edwards’ No. 99 Ford. The decision took exactly two races to pay huge dividends. The Phoenix victory was No. 20 for Edwards and the 37th for the 59-year-old Fennig, who scored three wins in 2012 with Kenseth.

"We were holding Carl back last year without meaning to, just because we didn’t have the right chemistry around him," Roush said.

Fennig might not be the missing link that ended Edwards’ career-matching long winless streak and, in Denny Hamlin’s words, made him relevant again. But there’s little doubt Fennig plays a key role in what Edwards and Roush hope will be a championship-contending season.

A NASCAR Sprint Cup crew chief since 1986, Fennig won the 1988 Daytona 500 with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison. With Roush Fenway Racing, he won 14 races with Mark Martin – including the 1998 Kobalt Tools 400 – and the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship with Kurt Busch.

Fennig could be described as "old school" to a fault – except there are no faults.

"Me, I go about my work a little different than some people do," he said. "I’m a hard worker. We sit there and we pay attention to detail on our race cars and that’s about it. I do the same thing I did with Matt and Mark Martin in ’98.

"That’s the way I work. We still have 85 percent of the team left from the 17. That’s still there and everybody knows the way I operate, what I want and we’re just trying to deliver it to Carl."

BURTON BOUNCES BACK — Jeff Burton nabbed a top-10 finish at Phoenix, a big deal considering the circumstances.

Consider the hurdles he faced: 1. Prior to the race, Burton’s crew chief Luke Lambert hurried home to be with his wife, who was expecting the couple’s second child; 2. He had just come off a wreck at Daytona, a track in which he was considered a dark-horse favorite after twice finishing in the top five last year; 3. Burton had come off two consecutive seasons with single-digit top-10 figures for the first time since 2004-05.

Now comes Vegas, a spot at which Burton has fond memories. Burton has two wins at Las Vegas (1999-2000), both coming in the No. 99 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. He scored back-to-back top-five finishes in 2008-09. Last year, Burton finished 14th at the 1.5-mile track.

Another two-time Vegas winner coming off a top-10 finish: Matt Kenseth. Though early, Burton’s and Kenseth’s seasons share some parallels. Both had unfortunate Daytona finishes, followed by top 10s at Phoenix. Kenseth, who finished seventh at Phoenix, won back-to-back Vegas races in 2003-04.

GO TIME — Kevin Harvick made last year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. So did Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. Kyle Busch missed it, but by an eyelash. Yet all four sit 30th or worse after two races.

Of course, it’s way too early to panic. In each case, bizarre circumstances ruined one or both of the first two races for that pack of marquee talent.

Harvick, after a lights-out Speedweeks heading into the Daytona 500, wrecked in the main event and finished 42nd, matching his career-worst finish. Kahne was involved in that same wreck and finished 36th. Truex suffered mechanical problems at Phoenix that landed him in 36th. Busch has slogged through many of the same issues that plagued his 2012 – namely, an engine issue at Daytona and a spin at Phoenix that took him out of contention.

Are better times in store for the quartet at Las Vegas Motor Speedway? For hometown hero Busch, yes – if he can relive past glory. His last three finishes have been subpar: 15th, 38th and 23rd. But prior to that, Busch had four top 10s in five races (including a win in 2009).

Harvick has an average Vegas finish of 13.0; Kahne has a track-record three Coors Light poles at Vegas; and Truex has one Vegas top-10, a sixth in 2011.