How unpredictable has the 2009 season been? Where do you begin?

Three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is 19th in the standings entering Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, while Hendrick Motorsports team-mates Dale Earnhardt Jr and Mark Martin are 29th and 34th, respectively, after three races.

Carl Edwards, who won a series-high nine races last year - including two of the first three - is winless, with one top ten and all of three laps in the lead, but David Reutimann is fifth in the standings, Bobby Labonte tenth and Michael Waltrip is twelfth. Reutimann has never won a Cup race, and the last wins for Labonte and Waltrip came in 2003.

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For only the third time in the past 35 years, no driver has finished in the top ten in each of the first three races.

"Trust me, guys like Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Ryan Newman [33rd overall] will not be there long," said 30th-placed John Andretti, "These teams know they aren't bad teams, but it shows that everyone can have some bad luck. Right now, it's like a lottery. The points are going to bounce all around, and you're going to see some guys jump up big and fall down big.

"I'm sure the fans have to love this. You see more teams up front, and it's great. You never want to see someone stink up the show. It's early, but it's a good sign to see a lot of different guys running up front."

Labonte is in the top ten for the first time since August 2004, and admits that 'it's good to see a lot of diversity at the front right now' claiming that 'our sport needs this'.

Johnson, meanwhile, started slowly last year too, entering Atlanta 14th in points, and his experience tells him there's no reason to be alarmed.

"Yes, last year we got off to a slow start, but it was more of a panic situation than what we have right now because we didn't have the speed in the cars," Johnson said, "This year, it's different. We've got fast cars, but just haven't linked together a solid four or 500 miles and taken advantage of the great cars that we've had.

"It's only three races in. Guys are going to have bad luck and, hopefully, ours is behind us and we can climb up the points ladder here. I'm not worried. I'm not stressed. I'm really optimistic and excited about the next few races."

Among those to watch this weekend are Kyle Busch, who Busch kicked off his break-out 2008 season with a victory in Atlanta last year and also won last week in Las Vegas, and four-time Atlanta winner Jeff Gordon, who has made a strong start and knows that it's only a matter of time before he snaps his current 44-race winless streak.

"Atlanta definitely doesn't have much grip, but I still seem to like it," Busch commented, "There are so many lines - you can run anywhere on the track, and I love that. Coming off turn two, if you're running the low line and start to slide up, you have a tendency to get sideways but, otherwise, it's a really fun track. It's really a driver's track because, when you get about 40 laps on your tyres, you really start to slide around and that can be a handful."

Earnhardt Jr, meanwhile, has finished third in three of his past six races at Atlanta and, overall, has one win and ten top tens in 19 starts there. He needs a strong showing to begin a move up the standings after a near disastrous start, while Edwards, who at least resides in the top ten overall, will hope to reprise his autumn race win at Atlanta - his third win at the track - and he attempts to live up to his pre-season favourite status.

Roush Fenway team-mate, and early season points leader, Matt Kenseth shares Busch's view that Atlanta is one of the tougher venues to master on the Cup Series schedule.

"It is a track where you not only race your competitors, but you race the track," he revealed, "It's really high-banked and fast. You start off fast, and the track gets slick, so you're always looking for a different groove and for more grip. The cars are tougher to drive, and they move around a lot more than the old cars. When the track gets slick, you've got to have a good-handling car so that you can change your points and get into the corners. I always have a lot of fun racing at Atlanta, because it is always a challenge."

by Bill Marx
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service



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