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.

Kyle Busch, however, demonstrated last Sunday that he will be a force to be reckoned with in 2009. Having dominated the regular season only to miss out in the Chase,
Busch hit the jackpot at his home track in Vegas, his 13th career Cup victory moving him up to sixth in the point standings.

Busch, who won a record 21 races across all three NASCAR national series a year ago, is the defending race champion at the Kobalt Tools 500 and, knowing that, in 2008, he won eight times at the next 17 tracks that the series visits should provide reason for heartburn for the rest of the competitors.

"We didn't let Daytona haunt us," said Busch, referring to his car getting caught up in an accident towards the end of the race after being dominant throughout the day, "We went to California and ran a smart race and finished third, then we came here [Las Vegas] and ran a smart race and won. This could have been a 1-3-1 season thus far, but it is what it is. We're really looking forward to getting back to Atlanta this weekend and defending our race title."

Richard Childress Racing posted three top twelve finishes in Vegas, with Clint Bowyer second, Jeff Burton third and Kevin Harvick twelfth. All three moved up in the points standings, with Bowyer now Gordon's closest challenger.

Finally, the man that many tipped to finally end Jimmie Johnson's run as Cup champion is 'only' ninth in the standings, and Carl Edwards admits that he's not exactly setting the world on fire. In Vegas, he finished 17th, following results of seventh and 18th in California and Daytona, and has led just three laps all season.

Before anyone asks what has happened to the guy who won three of the final four races last season, however, it should be remembered that Atlanta was a track where Edwards dominated last October. Indeed, in his nine-race Atlanta career, he has three wins - including his first career victory - five top fives and seven top tens.

Johnson's season, meanwhile, has thus far been full of disappointment. The three-time defending champion currently sits 19th in the series standings, but is another strong at Atlanta.

The standings are beginning to take on greater importance and, while the big names are unlikely to be affected, crunch time is approaching for those on the fringes of the top 35 in owner points

For the first five races of the season, the top 35 teams from the final 2008 Cup Series owner points table get guaranteed starting spots but, after the first five weeks of the new season, the guaranteed berths are based on the 2009 standings. With two races remaining before the 2009 top 35 owner points come into play, there are some intriguing stories emerging.

First up, the #20 Home Depot Toyota now driven by Joey Logano and owned by Joe Gibbs is 32nd overall; the #39 Haas Automation Chevrolet driven by Ryan Newman and owned by Tony Stewart is 33rd, and the #5 CARQUEST Chevrolet driven by Mark Martin and owned by Rick Hendrick is 34th.

Dale Earnhardt Jr too is at the 'wrong' end of the table, in 29th spot, but enjoyed a rebound of sorts in Vegas, posting his first top ten finish of the season in tenth spot. The performance moved Earnhardt up six spots in the standings, but he still has an uphill climb, as no driver has come back from as far back after three races to qualify for the Chase, and only three have made the cut from positions lower than 25th at this point in the year.

With Jeremy Mayfield, from 26th in 2005; Martin Truex Jr, from 27th in 2007, and Matt Kenseth, from 28th in 2005, all succeeding, however, Earnhardt remains cautiously optimistic.

"We really needed that top ten finish," he admitted, "but we know that we have to put together six or seven good weeks to give ourselves a shot at getting back into the battle for the Chase. We've got some good tracks coming up where we can do just that. We've got to keep our heads on straight and be smart."



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