By Jerry Bonkowski
Gatehouse News Service
HAMPTON, Ga. – We're only three races into the 36-race 2009 Sprint Cup season, and yet there are some drivers whose season is already close to being over!
No, that's not a misprint.
There is a line of thinking in NASCAR that if a driver struggles in the first five races, he'll be too far back to bounce back after digging himself such an early hole in the standings.
And as we head to Atlanta Motor Speedway for Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500, some big names need to make some equally big moves if they have any hopes of salvaging a decent season finish, let alone making a bid to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and a potential run still at the championship.
There are 13 full-time Cup drivers that are already more than 200 points behind series leader Jeff Gordon. Among them: Robby Gordon, celebrated rookies Joey Logano and Scott Speed, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, last year's rookie of the year Regan Smith, Paul Menard and veterans Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield, among others.
And just lurking under that 200-point cutoff mark is the biggest name in the sport, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is currently ranked 29th, 192 points behind Gordon.
Keep this in mind: after the first three races last season, 10 of what would be the eventual 12 drivers that would qualify for the Chase were already in the top-20 in points. Only Clint Bowyer and, ironically, Jeff Gordon, were not. But they were able to fight their way back into things and by June were solid contenders.
Earnhardt is being watched especially hard, given he's recorded finishes in the first three races of 27th (Daytona 500), 39th (Fontana) and 10th this past Sunday in Las Vegas. That showing in Sin City helped Earnhardt move up in the standings, but only a mere six places, from 35th to 29th.
"We really, really needed it," Earnhardt said of his Vegas showing. "We know that we need to put together about six or seven good weeks to give ourselves a shot at getting back into the battle for the Chase. We’ve got some good tracks in a row here where we can do that. We’ve just got to keep our heads on straight."
Coming into the Sin City race, Earnhardt was 252 points behind then-series leader Matt Kenseth, so he was able to cut 60 points off that spread with his Vegas finish.
"(After the first) two races, it is tough when you get in a hole like we are, ain't no doubt about it, man," Earnhardt said. "All you can do is go back to the race track and hope that something good happens, hope that you can regain some ground."
And even though we've only run just three races, Earnhardt knows just how far behind the eight-ball he already is, regardless of the 10th-place finish in Las Vegas.
"It's going to take a lot of races," Earnhardt said. "You are going to have to string a lot of runs together to come out of the hole we are in but we have done it before.
"It's very frustrating. We could have just as easily had two good runs. Either we beat ourselves or something bites us. Hopefully we'll be able to turn it around and get some runs together in the next 10 weeks that will put us back up in the top-15 if not in the top-12. I know damn good and well where I am sitting right now."
Earnhardt's teammate, Mark Martin, suffered early motor failure in the Las Vegas race, dropping him seven places to 34th in the standings. Considering that Martin returned to full-time racing this season after two years of part-time competition – and with the express purpose of making one last bid to win the Cup championship that has eluded him throughout his career – his chances of rallying now are long, at best.
"It's a pretty devastating result for us today," Martin acknowledged.
Martin is now 248 points behind Gordon.
Newman, who is one spot ahead of Martin in 33rd, has had finishes of 36th, 26th and 25th in the first three races, certainly not the start he anticipated when he moved to Stewart Haas Racing this season.
"We've just had such a run of bad luck in these first (three) races," Newman said, shaking his head.
Logano, who finished last at Daytona and 26th in California, bounced back for a 13th-place finish in Las Vegas, boosting him five spots in the standings to 32nd place. But like many of his veteran peers that are 30th or lower in the standings, there's still lots of work left to be done to get things turned around in the right direction.
"If we can just do a little better every week from where we were, whether that is one position or five positions, that is improvement and that is what we need to do all year long," said Logano's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli.
WEEKLY DRIVER PROFILE: KYLE BUSCH
Why he’s in the news: Earned his first Cup victory since last August, winning on his home track in Las Vegas on Sunday. Looked strong most of the day, made his final pass for the lead look easy and showed that he and the No. 18 Toyota team are back.
Quote from him: "This is probably as big as the Daytona 500. I said it wasn't going to be, but it is. This is the feeling of a lifetime." – Kyle Busch on winning what he called the biggest race of his career to date, capturing the Shelby 427 in Las Vegas this past Sunday.
Number to know: 45 – The number of races Kyle Busch has won in NASCAR pro-level competition. Sunday's win at Las Vegas was his 13th on the Cup level, while he also has 22 on the Nationwide Series level and 10 more on the Camping World Truck Series level, as well.
Quote of note: "Me and my brother watched this thing be built from the ground up. I didn't know if I'd ever win here, but this is pretty cool. This is pretty awesome, pretty special." – Kyle Busch, who along with older brother Kurt, watched Las Vegas Motor Speedway be built more than 10 years ago. It's been both brothers' goal to win on their home track, and Kyle winds up being the first to do so.