Friday March 5th, 2010

Owners, drivers and crew chiefs talk about it all offseason as if their jobs depend on it: the fundamental importance of starting the season fast. But is it really that significant?

It wasn't last year. After the first three races of 2009, the top six in the Sprint Cup standings read as follows: Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, David Reutimann and Kyle Busch. Only Gordon and Biffle went on to qualify for the Chase, which shows that early success is often fool's gold.

On Sunday, the Cup circuit stops at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500. It will be race No. 4 of 26 during the regular season. Who in the top six point standings will make the Chase? Who won't? Let's break it down.

As I wrote in Sports Illustrated this week, Harvick has been the biggest surprise of 2010. A year after finishing 19th in points, he's reeled off three straight top-10 runs to start the season and currently sits atop the standings.

Harvick hasn't been a fluke. He had the fastest car at Daytona (he lost the draft late and finished seventh), the fastest car at Fontana (he was running down Jimmie Johnson in the final laps, but finished second after nicking the wall), and the third-fastest car at Las Vegas (only Gordon and Johnson had better).

We've seen teams peak early and then start to fade away around midseason -- Roush-Fenway Racing last season comes to mind -- but Harvick and Richard Childress Racing look like they'll be serious players all season long. RCR's engine alliance with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has been key, as the two teams are now producing as much horsepower as any of their rivals, including Hendrick Motorsports.

Bottom line: Harvick makes the Chase.

Bowyer has been in this position before. Last year, he was as high as second in the standings after the sixth race, but five races later, he was out of the top 12 and never seriously in contention for a spot in the Chase. The 30-year-old is a steady driver, one who doesn't make a lot of mistakes, but doesn't do much to wow you on the track, either. He finished third in the final standings in 2007. That year, he proved that, with good equipment, he could challenge for a championship. And like 2007, Bowyer is once again piloting elite equipment this season.

Bottom line: Bowyer makes the Chase.

Martin is doing it again. The 51-year-old has picked up where he left off last season, racing to two top-five finishes in the first three starts. In other words, he's not slowing down. I was standing close to him when he hopped out of his No. 5 Chevy last Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas after his fourth-place finish. His smile beamed, and even though he'd just spent more than three hours at speeds approaching 200 mph, he looked like he could run a marathon.

Bottom line: Martin makes it.

After finishing eighth in the season-opener at Daytona, Kenseth and owner Jack Roush dumped crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and brought in veteran Todd Parrott. Kenseth and Blickensderfer won the first two races of the season last year, but later struggled with their chemistry and basically weren't heard from again in 2009. For the first time in his Cup career, Kenseth failed to make the Chase.

With Parrott calling the shots from the pits, Kenseth has flashed surprising speed -- especially given the fact that Roush-Fenway Racing has gotten off to a relatively slow start this season. Kenseth came in seventh at Fontana and fifth at Vegas. He isn't the type of driver who wins a lot of races, but he can contend for the title because he excels at quietly racking up top-10s.

Bottom line: Kenseth rebounds from a mostly forgettable 2009 season and advances to the Chase.

The four-time defending Cup champ has been nearly flawless on the track, spectacular on pit road, and has already won two races. 'Nuff said.

Bottom line: Johnson paces the field into the Chase.

Biffle hasn't been a contender for any wins yet in 2010, but he's had fast cars in every race and has three top-10 finishes. I chatted with him after he came in third in the Daytona 500 -- he pushed Jamie McMurray, a former Roush-Fenway teammate, to the victory -- and he was adamant that his team was championship-ready. It's not there yet, but clearly the No. 16 team is on the rise.

Bottom line: Biffle makes the Chase.

According to my crystal ball, every driver currently in the top six in points will qualify for the playoffs this fall. Yes, the cream of the Cup has already risen. In fact, expect all six drivers to be in the lead pack as the laps wind down on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

My pick to take the checkers on Sunday: Harvick.

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