NASCAR centerpiece: It's all shook up

Speedway Illustrated

The Story So Far…

David Reutimann fifth in points? Jimmie Johnson 19th? A casual glance at the standings might persuade you that the 2009 Sprint Cup season is being contested in an alternate universe. But there have been only three races so far. A lot can change between now and November. At this time last year, Johnson was 14th in points, and he bounced back to win a third straight championship. Five other drivers who were in the top 12 after Vegas failed to qualify for the 2008 Chase. So don’t read too much into the early returns. Still, a few clear trends have emerged:

• Kyle Busch is Back. Last year, in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch won eight Sprint Cup races – but none after Watkins Glen in August. Now, after leading more than half of the Daytona 500 (the “Big One” eliminated him), finishing a solid third at Fontana, and winning at Las Vegas, Busch is back on the fast track. And here’s a scary thought for the competition: As strong as Busch was last spring, he didn’t win his first Cup race until Atlanta, which is the next stop on the 2009 tour. Kyle Busch is now the man to beat – and one man who could beat him is Kyle Busch. He has to avoid the kind of mistakes that cost him last year – and that cost him in Saturday’s Nationwide race – when he crashed out while racing Kevin Harvick for the lead in the early going. 

• Engines Are Iffy. It isn’t the quantity of engines that have failed so far in 2009 – officially, just eight in the first three races – it’s the quality. At Fontana, prominent Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin both retired early with motor woes. At Las Vegas, the first two cars in the garage were those of Roush Fenway teammates Matt Kenseth and David Ragan, both with engine failures. Martin joined them a short time later with his second straight engine-related DNF. And a third RF driver, Carl Edwards, was officially listed as “running,” the last driver on the lead lap, although he crossed the finish line trailing ugly smoke. Moreover, five Toyota drivers changed engines earlier in the weekend, including winner Kyle Busch. Although listed as the pole winner, Busch actually had to start at the back after his team swapped engines after qualifying. While Jack Roush says “there’s no reason to be nervous about it,” the situation bears watching at Atlanta, which can be tough on engines.

• The Pits Are the Pits. At Fontana it was Greg Biffle. At Vegas it was Jimmie Johnson. Biffle may have had the best car at the Auto Club 500, but he lost a shot at the win when he overshot his pit stall. Johnson led the most laps at Las Vegas, but saw his day go south after a near-replay of Biffle’s miscue. And while such mistakes are uncharacteristic of top talent, Biffle and Johnson have had plenty of company so far in this young season. At Vegas alone, eight teams were penalized for pit-road infractions.

Driver Profile


WHY HE MATTERS: Leading active Sprint Cup winner at Atlanta

WHAT HE SAYS: “I feel good about the room to improve.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: He’s improved already. His top-five finish at Vegas was his first since ’06.


KOBALT TOOLS 500 Atlanta Motor Speedway

THE LOWDOWN Las Vegas was a battle of attrition. Just six laps in, the suspense over Matt Kenseth’s attempt to become the first driver to win the first three Cup races of the season ended in a cloud of engine smoke. Add a track-record 14 caution flags, and you’ve got a long day in the desert, with nearly one of every four laps run under the yellow. Next up: Atlanta, one of the fastest tracks on the circuit.


2008    Kyle Busch

2007    Jimmie Johnson

2006    Kasey Kahne

2005    Carl Edwards

ABOUT Atlanta

TRACK: Atlanta Motor Speedway (Hampton, Ga.), 1.54-mile high-banked asphalt oval

RACE LENGTH: 325 laps, 500.5 miles



Quote of Note

“This was probably as big as the Daytona 500. I said it wasn’t going to be, but it is.”

– Las Vegas native Kyle Busch, after his first hometown Sprint Cup win

Where to Watch

Sunday’s pre-race show on Fox starts at 1:30 p.m. EST, followed by the race at 2:15.


Return of the Native

Six drivers have recorded their first career Cup wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway, starting with Bobby Johns in 1960, the track’s inaugural season. In the current decade, both Kevin Harvick (2001) and Carl Edwards (2005) scored dramatic breakthrough wins at AMS. If Atlanta brings David Ragan his first Cup win, expect another emotional celebration. Ragan was born in Unadilla, Ga., just a gas-’n’-go down I-75 from AMS, and once raced Legends cars on the track’s quarter-mile infield oval.

A Qualified Success

Ryan Newman has won seven poles at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 14 attempts, including a remarkable streak of six straight that encompassed each of the two Cup events at AMS from 2003 through 2005. One more pole will break a tie with Newman’s mentor, Buddy Baker, as the all-time leader in pole qualifying at the track. Unlike Baker, however, Newman has been unable to translate success in qualifying to results in the race. Baker had two career wins at Atlanta, while Newman has never finished higher than fifth.


Winning the first two Cup races of the season, as Matt Kenseth did this year, is unusual. But winning two races in the first month is not. In fact, it’s happened six times in the last six years. In 2008, Carl Edwards won Fontana and Las Vegas en route to a series-high nine victories and a runner-up finish in points. Jimmie Johnson was able to parlay two early wins into championships in 2007 (when he won Vegas and Atlanta) and 2006 (when he won Daytona and Vegas). No driver got two wins in the first month of 2005 – but two drivers did it in 2004. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took Daytona and Atlanta, and Kenseth conquered Rockingham and Vegas. Oddly, both of those drivers ended up as also-rans in the points race, with Junior fifth and Kenseth eighth.


Most Career Sprint Cup Wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway

RANK            DRIVER            RACES WON

1            Dale Earnhardt            9

2            Cale Yarborough            7

3            Bobby Labonte*            6

4            Richard Petty            6

5            Bobby Allison            5

6            Bill Elliott*                5

7            Jeff Gordon*            4

8            Fred Lorenzen            4

9            David Pearson            4

10            Neil Bonnett                3

11            Carl Edwards*            3

12            Jimmie Johnson*            3

13            Morgan Shepherd            3

14            Darrell Waltrip            3

15            Buddy Baker            2

16            Mark Martin*            2

17            Marvin Panch            2

18            Tony Stewart*            2

19            Rusty Wallace            2

20            LeeRoy Yarbrough            2