NASCAR: First four races have been anything but ordinary

Jerry Bonkowski

As NASCAR settles in for the first of four off-weeks this season, the first four races of 2009 have produced a multitude of surprises.

There's been fast and furious action, so much so that if you blink, you may have missed something. So, to make sure you didn't, let's take time during this off-week to review the most significant highlights – but keep in mind there's still 32 races still left to go.

Arguably the two biggest surprises have been the performance of Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth. Gordon, who has not won a race since Oct. 2007, remains atop the Sprint Cup standings for the second consecutive week, thanks to outstanding runs like this past Sunday's runner-up finish at Atlanta.

Kenseth, meanwhile, went winless in 2008, only to win the first two races of 2009, including the prestigious (albeit rain-shortened) Daytona 500.

And then there's Clint Bowyer. Even though he remained in the Richard Childress Racing stable, he switched teams within the organization for 2009, acquiring a new sponsor (General Mills), new crew chief (Shane Wilson) and an entirely new group of crew members, losing those that had helped him be a bonafide contender in the last two editions of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The two Busch brothers, Kurt and younger sibling Kyle, have proven to be significant factors. Kurt Busch, who dominated en route to winning at Atlanta on Sunday, is third in the standings, while Kyle, who won a week earlier in the brothers' hometown of Las Vegas, is seventh in the Cup points.

But of even greater note, Kyle Busch has already won four races in 2009 (one in Cup, another in the Nationwide Series and two triumphs in the Camping World Truck Series) and, at least mathematically, is on pace to better the phenomenal 21 wins he earned last season across all three major professional series.

Tony Stewart, who left Joe Gibbs Racing after a 10-year tenure, is doing quite well in his new role as co-owner and lead driver of Stewart Haas Racing. While some critics felt Stewart and new teammate Ryan Newman would struggle in their first year, Stewart currently sits sixth in the standings and, frankly, is a win just waiting to happen. Newman admittedly has struggled, but has been more a victim of bad luck than anything he or his team has done.

Sunday's race in Atlanta ended – at least temporarily – the surprising start in 2009 of David Reutimann and teammate and team owner Michael Waltrip. Reutimann came into Atlanta fifth in the standings – the highest he's ever been – only to fall seven spots due to a poor performance in the race. Ditto for Waltrip, who dropped from 12th to 16th as we head into the off weekend.

Another early-season surprise, Bobby Labonte, who joined Hall of Fame Racing after a hasty departure from Petty Enterprises during the off-season, was 10th heading into Atlanta, but faltered and left there in 23rd place.

Atlanta was also a pivotal race for three-time defending Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, who came into the race 19th, only to have a strong outing and jump up to 13th in the points.

"We're not worried about the slow start," Johnson said. "We'll be there when it counts the most: to make the Chase again."

Johnson's teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., got off to a terrible start to the season, beginning with the multi-car wreck he caused at Daytona and the ensuing criticism he received from fans and media. But he's slowly started to climb back upwards in the standings, heading into the off weekend in 24th position, a hefty 237 points behind another of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Gordon.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment thus far after the first four races is veteran Mark Martin, who returned to full-time action this season after competing part-time the last two seasons, making one last bid to win the Cup championship that has eluded him throughout his quarter-century Cup career.

One of the oldest drivers on the circuit at 50 years old, Martin remains mired in 34th place, one spot behind the youngest driver in Cup history, Joey Logano, who has had great difficulty trying to fill the shoes of the departed Stewart in the No. 20 Toyota.

Jerry Bonkowski can be reached atMotorsportwriter@msn.com.

DRIVER PROFILE

KURT BUSCH

Why he's in the news: Busch is off to one of the best starts of his career, coming off a win Sunday at Atlanta. It's a stark contrast to last season, when he finished second to then-teammate Ryan Newman in the Daytona 500, and then languished for the remainder of the season. The 2004 Sprint Cup champ has put a new energy and invigoration to Penske Racing.

Quote from him: "It was something me and my buddies brewed up after a few too many Miller Lites one night. It just feels like, to me, when you put a car in reverse like that, it lets the car relax and lets it feel like it did a good job. It's kind of like cooling down a horse after a good Kentucky Derby run, so I'm looking forward to many more of those." – Kurt Busch talking about his unique victory lap at Atlanta, which he did in reverse.

Number to know: 396 – of all drivers that have started all four races thus far this season, Paul Menard sits furthest back in 38th position, 396 points behind series leader Jeff Gordon.

Quote of note: "Here's what I want to know: if my wheel comes off and I hit the wall real hard, I get to whack every damn one of you in the head with a hammer, is that a deal?" – Dale Earnhardt Jr., talking over his team radio to crew chief Tony Eury Jr., after a bad pit stop in Sunday's race at Atlanta. Later, he told reporters "it was all a joke."