By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
After three races, the top 10 in the Sprint Cup point standings is an eclectic mix of favorites and dark horses. Jeff Gordon sits at the top with Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle in the next three slots. That will certainly not catch anyone by surprise, but two members of the top 10 are a reminder to NASCAR fans that anything can happen in this sport.
On the strength of their top-five finishes in the Shelby 427, David Reutimann climbed to fifth in the point standings and Bobby Labonte and his all but forgotten No. 96 is in 10th.
Labonte snapped a 79-race streak of finishes outside the top five when he crossed the line fifth Sunday after making a last-lap pass on Gordon. Reutimann finished fourth, which was the first top-five of his career.
Both Reutimann and Labonte had consistent runs in the first two races, but little prepared them for Sunday. Labonte finished a respectable 22nd at Daytona and was 20th at Fontana, Calif. Reutimann was 12th and 14th, respectively, in those two races.
"It's really huge," Labonte said after the Las Vegas race. "... We just had a great race car all day -- and all weekend, for that matter."
Both Labonte and the Hall of Fame Racing team entered the offseason with uncertain futures. Labonte was without a ride after Gillett-Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises merged, and HoF had run out of drivers after swapping five different men in and out of its car in 2008.
Reutimann's future was a little more predictable. At the end of last season, this Michael Waltrip Racing team was among the most improved on the circuit. In fact, Reutimann earned a top-10 at Texas with three races remaining in 2008.
For all his promise, however, the best Reutimann could manage before Sunday was four top-10s. His first top-five came in his 66th start.
"You are just kind of relieved, if anything." Reutimann said. "You run around here for a couple of years and (are) trying to get close to winning one of these things, and so we're a little closer than what we were. It feels good to be where we are."
Officially, Reutimann qualified fourth, but he was forced to give up his grid position when the No. 00 Aaron's Dream Machine was one of five Toyotas forced to change an engine before the race began.
"I'm absolutely thrilled, with the way our day started out and having to go to the back after having a great qualifying run there." Reutimann said. "(Crew chief) Rodney Childers said to just keep calm and we'll keep working on this thing."
As if that weren't enough excitement, Reutimann's engine experienced more problems during the race. "We developed an oil leak at the midpoint of the race, and the guys came in and got that fixed," he said. "We went back out there and it put us back to 25th or 30th, and we kind of ran back up through there just one at a time."
Not content with a fourth, Reutimann believed he had a car capable of winning. Of course, there was another driver in the field -- Labonte -- who would have liked to push him back one more position. In the closing stages of the race, Labonte mounted a charge.
"I got by the 26 on the inside," Labonte said of his final push, "which is hard because it takes all the air off your wing, and then I had the 00 in my sights there and almost had a fourth place. But still, all in all, it was a really good day. I'm really excited about it."
It was Labonte's first top-five finish in 79 races. All good? Almost.
"I am (excited) down deep, but, dang it, (we could have had) just a little bit more," he said. "We had one more position we probably could have got in one more lap on the 00, but my car was really good. I just feel like I did all I could do, but I know there's more for me to prove in these race cars and I can't wait to do it.
"We've got so many great people there working for us and I just feel like we've got all this confidence on our side right now. I'm excited we got us a top-five and we're looking forward to each and every weekend. It's going to be a builder for me."
As rewarding as their top-five finishes must be, and as thrilled as they are to find themselves in the top 10 in points, however, Reutimann and Labonte owe their success to the up-and-down fortunes of their top competitors.
In three races this season, no one has swept the top 10, and Kenseth might be the bad luck poster boy. He struggled all weekend in his bid for three consecutive victories to start the 2009 season after winning the Daytona 500 and Auto Club 500. This week, he had to take an owner's provisional to get into the show at the back of the pack and never got up to speed before blowing an engine only six laps into the Shelby 427.
Likewise, Jimmie Johnson's bid for a fourth straight championship took a hit in Las Vegas. Trying to complete a pass on the outside of Jamie McMurray with seven laps remaining, he spun by himself and slammed the wall before limping home a lap off the pace in 24th with a crumpled Chevrolet. Ironically, he spun immediately after completing a pass on Labonte for what was then the eighth position.
The teams pack up their equipment and head to Atlanta next week, and Labonte has to be feeling good about his prospects there. In his heyday, Labonte earned six victories on the Georgia track, which is the most among all active drivers, and with a little luck he could be one of the most pleasant surprises again next week.