If race fans could have cashed in on the odds of predicting what NASCAR's Cup Series' top twelve would look like after the season's first three races, the payout would have been monumental as they left Las Vegas.
Heading into the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway this Sunday, the leading dozen features a new and competitive look, with only five drivers who were in the top twelve at this point last year in there now, and a trio of drivers - David Reutimann, Bobby Labonte and Michael Waltrip - who would have been considered long shots to break into the illustrious group at the beginning of the season.
Reutimann is coming off a career-best fourth place at Las Vegas and has moved up to fifth in points but, a year ago, he was a lowly 31st overall after the first three races. Labonte turned in his first top five performance since 2006 by finishing fifth in Vegas, and is now tenth in points where he was 15th this time last season, while Waltrip stayed in the top twelve for the third straight week, answering the self-imposed pressure he applied during the pre-season when he said that, if his 2009 results weren't considerably improved, that he would retire. The owner-driver was 34th overall at this stage in 2008.
Call it parity; call it balanced competition. But however you frame it up, the new blood in the top twelve certainly has made for some interesting early-season conversation - and speculation about whether these teams will be among the elite later in the season.
“It's pretty awesome,” admitted 2000 Cup champion Labonte following his run at Las Vegas, “I can't wait to get back in it and go. We're taking it one race at a time, so I'm excited. I just feel like we've got all of this confidence on our side right now.”
The man at the head of the queue, however, has a familiar look about him, as four-time series champion Jeff Gordon finds himself atop the standings without winning a race heading to Atlanta. It's the first time since 28 October 2007 that the veteran has been the points leader, and the first time since his 1997 championship season that he has been the leader after the year's first three events.
Gordon has parlayed solid finishes through the opening rounds at Daytona, Fontana and Vegas - comprising runs to 13th, second and sixth respectively - to take over the points lead from race one and two winner Matt Kenseth.
“Three weeks in a row, I've felt like we have had the car that can win - and that's quite a change from last year,” said Gordon, who went winless in 2008 to snap a 14-year streak in which he won at least one race per season.
This Sunday, the #24 Hendrick-run Chevrolet will be looking for its first points victory since 13 October 2007 - a streak of 44 races - at a venue where Gordon not only made his Cup Series debut, but has also won four times.