Observations from a mild, blue-sky spring day at Atlanta Motor Speedway:
1. Kurt Busch made a statement.
On Sunday Busch thoroughly dominated the field, leading 234 of the 330 laps to win his first race of the season. More significantly, this was Busch's first victory on a 1.5-mile track since 2002. These are the types of tracks that make up the bulk of the Chase schedule, and this offseason Busch and crew chief Pat Tryson made it their priority to improve their performance at these venues. Well, mission accomplished.
Now third in the points standings, Busch has three top-10 finishes in four starts this season. Last year Busch was an afterthought, as he came in 18th in the points and missed the Chase for only the second time in his career. But give his owner Roger Penske credit: Instead of infusing the No. 2 team with fresh blood over the winter, Penske kept all the key players in place. Penske has great confidence in Tryson, and he should. After all, Tryson led Mark Martin into the Chase for three straight seasons between 2004 and '06. Tryson is one of the most easy-going guys in the garage, and his personality meshes well with Busch, who at times can be as fiery as his little brother.
Last Friday I wrote about how this team was coming on. Don't be surprised if Busch takes over the points lead within the next month. Barring unforeseen accidents, he should be good for top-five runs at Bristol on March 22 and Martinsville on March 29.
2. Jeff Gordon is closing in on his first win since October 2007.
For the second time this season, Gordon authored a second-place finish. This is a far cry from 2008, when Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte struggled mightily on 1.5-mile tracks like Atlanta. But this team made as many gains over the offseason as any other team in the sport. Now, for the first time in over a year, Gordon feels comfortable behind the wheel of the CoT. Four races into 2009, he's on top of the standings.
To read more about Gordon's resurgence, check out my story in the magazine this week.
3. It was another rough day for Mark Martin
The biggest disappoint so far has been Martin, though it's not because of anything he's done on the track. To review: After driving only part time last season, the 50-year-old Martin joined Hendrick Motorsports this winter to make one last charge at the championship. He's finished runner-up in the final standings four times in his career, and Hendrick convinced him to sign a one-year deal by offering him a chance to drive some of the best equipment of his career. But that equipment has betrayed him.
On Sunday he suffered a right rear tire failure and finished 31st. Combine this with two engine failures that resulted in DNFs, and Martin is now buried at 34th in the standings. What makes this so disheartening for this team is that without the blown tire and mechanical implosions, they easily could have three top-10 finishes right now. On Sunday, for instance, Martin started from the pole, ran with the leaders for much of the afternoon, and seemed destined for a top-five run when his tire went down. This is the kind of atrocious luck that has shadowed Martin his entire career.
So now Martin faces an uphill climb simply to qualify for the Chase. There's still plenty of time for this team to bounce back, but the season couldn't have started much worse for Martin, whom many in the garage believed would be a serious title contender.
4. Brian Vickers will win a race this season.
If Martin has been the season's biggest disappointment, Vickers has been the biggest surprise. On Sunday the 25-year-old had a chance to win the second race of his Cup career, as he was running down Busch in the final laps. But then a caution flag waved with three laps remaining due to debris on the track. The leaders pitted, and Vickers lost ground; he came out in sixth. Despite that, he still finished fifth, which was his third top-10 finish of the season.
How big a turnaround is this? Last year he had only six top-10 runs and wound up 19th in the final standings. Currently ninth in points, Vickers will be a threat this season to qualify for his first Chase. A sports psychologist who works with several NASCAR drivers -- as well as NFL and college football players -- recently told me that Vickers is one of the smartest athletes he's ever come across. This is starting to show on race days.
You heard it here first: This team will be in Victory Lane at some point in 2009.
5. The economy is absolutely crushing NASCAR.
The crowd at Atlanta Motor Speedway was perhaps the smallest I've seen at a 1.5-mile track in the eight years I've been covering the sport. NASCAR and the tracks don't release official attendance figures, but I talked to several longtime NASCAR writers in the media center during the race, and we estimated the crowd to be about 60,000. This may sound ok, but Atlanta has a seating capacity of 124,000. The stands were at least half empty.
"We are far from immune from what's going on in the economy," said Carl Edwards afterward.
No, NASCAR isn't immune. Unfortunately for NASCAR, this is one trend that won't change anytime soon.