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New faces in Cup Series top dozen.


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.



Related Pictures

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Bobby Labonte at Daytona [Pic credit: Getty for NASCAR]
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Quicken Loans Chevrolet SS, races to an eighth place finish with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS who finished in second place Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Alan Marler for Chevy Racing)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet SS, stops in his pit on his way to a fifth place finish Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. Elliott takes over the #24 car from retired driver Jeff Gordon.  (Photo by Ashley R Dickerson for Chevy Racing)
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Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 20, 2016 in Fontana, California. (Photo Credit: Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s / Superman Chevrolet, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 20, 2016 in Fontana, California. (Photo Credit: Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s / Superman Chevrolet, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 20, 2016 in Fontana, California. (Photo Credit: Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Austin Dillon, driver of the #3 American Ethanol Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 18, 2016 in Fontana, California.  (Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, finishes in eighth place Sunday, March 6, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Harold Hinson for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, leads Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 28, 2016 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, races to victory Sunday, February 28, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. This was Johnson`s 76th career win, 5th in Atlanta. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, finished second. The victory ties Johnson with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in NASCAR premier series wins. (Photo by Alan Marler for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory with a burnout Sunday, February 28, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. This was Johnson`s 76th career win, 5th in Atlanta. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, finished second. The victory ties Johnson with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in NASCAR premier series wins.  (Photo by Andrew Coppley for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory with his wife, Chandra and daughters Genevieve and Lydia Sunday, February 28, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. This was Johnson`s 76th career win, 5th in Atlanta. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, finished second. The victory ties Johnson with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in NASCAR premier series wins. (Photo by Harold Hinson for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, crosses the finish line for the victory Sunday, February 28, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. This was Johnson`s 76th career win, 5th in Atlanta. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, finished second. The victory ties Johnson with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in NASCAR premier series wins. (Photo by Alan Marler for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet SS drives to victory Thursday, February 18, 2016 winning the first of two NASCAR Sprint Cup Can-Am Duel races at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. This is Earnhardt Jr.`s second consecutive Duel victory. He will start on the inside of Row 2 for Sunday`s Daytona 500 race. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, poses in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am Duels at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am Duels at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/NASCAR via Getty Images)

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