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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Labonte, Reutimann show up big: Signs of things to come, or a fluke?

In the not too distant past, every time the Cup series went to Atlanta, there was one name no one counted out of contention: Bobby Labonte.

He has won six races at the track, and finished third three times. It is by far his best track on the circuit.

Now, coming off a surprise top-5 finish at Las Vegas that turned some heads, Labonte is heading back to the site of so much of his past success. He has struggled at Atlanta the past several years, missing the top-10 for the past five years, but this is a brand new era for Labonte.

If he can come out and put together another solid top-5 or top-10 run, he will be serving notice to the rest of the garage that he is not the driver who struggled mightily in a Petty Enterprises car the past few years. He is the driver who won a Cup championship in 2000 and is ready to get back to the business of competing for a trip to Victory Lane.

It will not be easy. The #96 Hall of Fame Racing was an anemic backmarker organization in 2008, and an alliance with Yates Racing was created this year to help change that. The addition of a top-notch driver like Labonte may have been the final piece of the recipe for success.

It’s possible the Vegas finish was a fluke and Labonte will return to mediocrity for the rest of the year, but I’ll be rooting for him. It’s always a nice story when a guy many have written off for dead sees a career resurrection, and Labonte may be on that path.

Another surprise at Vegas was the 4th-place finish for Michael Waltrip Racing’s David Reutimann, who is now ranked fifth in points. Reutimann has shown promise in the past, including some very solid runs at the end of 2008, but it’s looking like this could be his breakout year.

The success of MWR is one of the most surprising stories this season. The team struggled mightily when it first began competing in Cup, but it appears things are getting on track at Waltrip’s organization. If Reutimann can continue to put up solid finishes, there’s a chance he could spoil the day for one of the bigger teams (Roush, Hendrick, etc.) by knocking one of their drivers out of the Chase.

But it’s far too early to tell if that will happen. In order to be in that top 12 come the end of the fall Richmond race, you have to be consistently good. By setting such a high standard for himself this early in the season, the pressure is now on Reutimann to prove he belongs at this party and shouldn’t be kicked out.

I wish him luck, as it won’t be easy.

Good finish for Jr.
There was very little talk about Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday, and he’s probably fine with that. With an endless stream of wrecks happening around him, Jr. was able to end the day with a top-10 finish and move up from 35th to 29th in points. It’s not where he wants to be, but at least he’s on the way up after a disastrous first two races.

Hell of a save, Jamie
I have to give a shout-out to Jamie McMurray for the awesome save he pulled off during the race on Sunday. After getting a little nudge, his car was so sideways for so long I thought I was watching a World of Outlaws race. I guarantee most drivers would have ruined that car in that situation, but Jamie somehow kept it off the wall.

Rookies rebound
Both rookie contenders, Scott Speed and Joey Logano, got their seasons stabilized with their best runs of the season. Logano clocked in 13th and Speed was 21st, much better than the terrible runs the two had in the first two races. Maybe now the early-season jitters are going away we’ll see them start to compete with each other and the rest of the field on a more regular basis.

Bad week for motors
Jack Roush’s cars are usually among the cars dominating at Vegas, but something else happened Sunday: His motors were blowing up. First, Matt Kenseth’s quest for history was derailed by a bad motor, then David Ragan exploded. Finally, with the race a couple laps from being over, Carl Edwards’s motor expired.
The remaining two Roush cars were able to salvage top-10 finishes.

Last week it was Hendrick motors blowing, and that was determined to be due to faulty parts. Considering how rare it is for Roush motors to blow, perhaps they were victims of a similar situation.

Even Toyota had motor issues this week, but their trouble came during qualifying and practice, and it appears they figured out the problem and got it fixed by race time.

Points watch
What’s the benefit of winning the first two races of the year? You can finish dead last in the next race and still be third in points, like Matt Kenseth.

Tony Stewart has his first weak run of the year, but still stayed in the Chase, dropping to 8th place.

Jimmie Johnson is still out of the Chase after wrecking Sunday, but don’t worry: He’ll be there soon enough.

Some of the biggest surprises are up top. Jeff Gordon, winless last year, leads the points. Clint Bowyer climbed to second in points after a bold move not to pit toward the end of Sunday‘s race.

On the other end, Joey Logano jumps into the top 35, while Scott Speed is lurking in 36th, poised to jump in with another solid run next week.

Meanwhile, Mark Martin’s bad day left him on the brink of falling out of the top 35. That’s not exactly what the man expected, considering he thought he could be a title contender. Also, Ryan Newman is still struggling mightily and hasn’t had a good run yet.


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