Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't overwhelmed anyone in his first two Nextel Cup races of 2006, there is evidence his team's efforts to upgrade its on-track product may be on course after an 11th-place finish two weeks ago in California.
Earnhardt, the most popular driver in NASCAR, disappointed his millions of fans last year with a mediocre showing that left him out of the season-ending Chase for the championship.
Only the top 10 drivers got into the 10-race playoff and Earnhardt didn't come close, thanks mostly to some awful performances by the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet on the 1.5- and 2-mile ovals that make up nearly half of the 36-race Cup schedule.
In 14 races in 2005 on the so-called intermediate tracks, Earnhardt managed one win (Chicagoland) and three other top 10s (two at Texas and one at Atlanta).
His best finish in the other 10 was 17th and there were six finishes of 32nd or worse.
His two starts on California Speedway's 2-mile oval last year produced finishes of 32nd and 38th, so his showing last month could be significant -- especially if he can back it up today in Las Vegas with another competitive race.
"It used to be a pretty decent track for us," Earnhardt said. "I know you're only as good as your last race, but, man, it wasn't too long ago that we were knocking on the door to some wins there.
"Every time we ran there in the Busch Series, we were a solid top-five team. We went in as Nextel Cup rookies in 2000, led a bunch of laps and finished 10th. Then, a few years ago, we finished second to Matt [Kenseth]. I was pretty happy."
Since that runner-up finish in 2003, though, the 1.5-mile LVMS track has been a boobytrap for Earnhardt and his Dale Earnhardt Inc. team.
Two years ago, in the only Cup stop at the Nevada track, Earnhardt finished 35th. Last March, he crashed out on the 12th lap, finishing 42nd in the 43-car field.
He heads back to Las Vegas with two solid races under his belt -- including an eighth-place run in the season-opener at Daytona -- and sitting fifth in the points.
"I think we're on our way to getting back in the game," Earnhardt said, giving a lot of the credit to crew chief Tony Eury Jr., with whom he was reunited for the last 10 races of 2005.
"Tony Jr. has been working real hard, and I'm working real hard to give him the best feedback I can possibly give," Earnhardt said.
"It's obvious we've still got a lot of work to do, but we're making gains," Earnhardt added. "I think [California] proved that. I know if we can get through this race, we'll be looking pretty good [in the point standings]. We've won at eight of the next nine tracks on the schedule after Vegas."
The Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, had some fun plans for their homecoming this week -- and they had nothing to do with today's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400.
The two NASCAR stars, who grew up in Las Vegas, flew to Nevada early in the week for some extracurricular activities.
Young brother Kyle, who drove in the Busch race last Sunday in Mexico City, was anxious to get back.
"Yes, I got off the plane from Mexico and three hours later I was on a flight to Vegas," Kyle said. "Kurt and I had a guy bring our four-wheelers out here, and we're just going to get out on the sand dunes and have some fun with them for the next couple of days.
"He and I both love anything with a motor on it, and we enjoy going fast and doing jumps and all that, so the four-wheelers are perfect for us. There's not many sand dunes in North Carolina, so we decided to make the most of this trip and take a couple of days off to just cut up and have some fun together."
Las Vegas was good to the brothers last year, with Kyle finishing second and Kurt third behind winner Jimmie Johnson.
Two-time and reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart agrees with most everybody that the races in California and Las Vegas are the first true tests to see how competitive your team is.
The opener at Daytona is a race in which carburetor restrictor plates sap horsepower and dictate a different style of racing than at most other tracks, particularly the intermediate ovals.
At California, Stewart was strong, challenging for the win until his engine failed late in the race.
"If your cars are good, you'll run well at California, Vegas, Atlanta, Texas and so on," Stewart said. "Everybody wants to know where they stack up and shake out right now. If you can get off to a good start, it shows that your program is really where it needs to be. This is a huge week."
After a fifth-place finish at Daytona, Stewart's 42nd-place run in California has placed him 22nd in the points. But Stewart, who has finished in the top 10 in five of seven races at LVMS, including the last four, says he isn't too concerned.
"It's not so much that you worry about points as you worry about performance," he said. "We ran well at California, but we didn't finish well. We seemed to stack up well against the Hendrick and Roush teams, but I'm anxious to do it again at Las Vegas.
"We want to know: Are we where we need to be? Are we competitive right off the bat? Compared to last year, we feel like we're starting this year off a lot better. Las Vegas may be a different situation, but if The Home Depot Chevrolet drives anywhere like it did at California, I'm going to be real excited about the year."
Roush Racing cars have won five of the eight races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.