By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway was the best of two worlds.
Predictable favorites like third-place finisher Carl Edwards and ninth-place Jimmie Johnson ran well, but they were joined in the top 10 by several drivers who are producing remarkably better results than last year.
Points leader Jeff Gordon is a victory waiting to happen. Even though he came up just one spot short and finished second to a dominant Kurt Busch, he continues to look like the championship driver of old.
In the first four races of the season, Gordon has driven cars that were capable of winning every week. The only thing that has kept him from top-five finishes in all of the first four Cup events was rain at Daytona (finished 13th) and a blown tire that ripped off his left front fender last week at Las Vegas (finished sixth).
"It's just this race team stepping it up," Gordon said, contrasting the difference between 2009 and the struggles he endured in 2008.
"This team has just been unbelievable this year," Gordon continued. "The fire in their eye and the things they've been working on back at the shop and the set-ups that match my driving styles and things I've been working on, physically just being more fit and the pit crew and just everything."
This might be the best team Gordon has had since he won the championship in 2001.
"In '07 we were having fun, but I really never felt like we were one of the best cars," Gordon said. "Even before the Chase, I felt like (Johnson) was just a little bit better than us.
"This is the first time that I can remember, maybe 2001, that we've had something that we battle with these guys and get in there and grind it out and have something for anybody on any different weekend."
Consistently strong runs elevated him to the top of the Sprint Cup standings lead last week, and his second-place at Atlanta kept him No. 1, 43 points ahead of Clint Bowyer.
"We've seen other guys who have beat us and we're the most consistent one toward the front," Gordon said. "That's going to pay off for us in the long run. We haven't reached our full potential yet. We're still gaining momentum."
Gordon isn't the only driver who has opened eyes thus far this season.
Brian Vickers ended the 2008 season 19th in the points. But because both Red Bull Racing teams came on strong at the end of the year, it gave the competition a glimpse of things to come.
Often, momentum is hard to sustain over the offseason, but after getting spun by Dale Earnhardt Jr. into a "Big One" crash in the Daytona 500, the No. 83 team has rebounded with three consecutive top-10 finishes that helped Vickers leap six positions in the points to 11th.
In the closing stages of Sunday's race, Vickers looked as if he might even have a car capable of beating Busch. When the final caution of the afternoon waved on lap 323 for debris from a blown tire on Robby Gordon's car, the No. 83 was running in the tire tracks of the No. 2 and had chased down the leader from several seconds back.
If the caution had not waved, "we would've finished first or second, or wrecked trying," Vickers said at the close of the race. "We obviously had the better car there at the end. Kurt and I were running the same line, so it wasn't going to be easy to pass him."
Vickers was waiting for the final lap or two to make his move. "On the last lap, you can stick it off in there wide open to run it against the wall and hope for the best," he said. "You can't do that until then."
But a mistake on pit road during the final pit stop dropped Vickers to sixth, which took him out of the battle for the lead. He ended the race in fifth.
And then there was the saga of Tony Stewart, who might have experienced the biggest roller-coaster of the day, however. After starting the race 11th, he faded early with an ill-handling car. That put him in a precarious position when a caution was waved on lap 68 because a crew member on Marcos Ambrose's team chased a tire nearly into an unsafe spot in the infield grass.
Having pitted from a position just inside the top 20, Stewart lost two laps when the pit cycle was abbreviated by this bizarre event, and getting a "free pass" from NASCAR was going to be a longshot unless he made up one circuit on the track the old-fashioned way -- by racing his way past the leader under green-flag conditions.
Ironically, a mistake on pit road by his own crew played into his favor. When the caution waved on lap 186, a fuel-filler issue kept the team from packing Stewart's Chevrolet completely full of gasoline, and with a car lighter than his competition, he was able to drive around race leader Kurt Busch, which made him one of the few drivers who passed the No. 2 all day. Now only one lap down, he was eventually able to get the "free pass" back onto the lead lap.
"He just still drove the hell out of it and kept it up all day," said Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief. "He got the best out of what he could get every run. Then, when it came time to push it and get his lap back, he did. He actually went past the leader of the race to get a lap back, and he was the only guy to do that. That was pretty neat to see that and give us a chance to get to the one-lap-down group."
"There are a lot of guys that had problems today and never recovered from it," he said. "I mean, (Kyle Busch) got two laps down and never recovered. Guys that stayed on the lead lap all day at some point had a problem and never could recover. We got two laps down and fought our way back. At this place, that is hard to do."
Stewart proved the team made the right adjustments during its pit stops by driving back to earn his third top-10 finish in the first four races. That elevated him from 14th to sixth in the standings, defying the experts who said this new team had little hope of succeeding in Stewart's first year as an owner.
"We got two laps down early and it took us the whole race to recover from it, and you never get back good track position," Stewart said. "When we were able to get up there with the No. 24 and the No. 2 and actually lead the pack, it was a whole different race car than it was way back there where we were."