(AP Photo/Darryl Graham)
Raise your hand if you said Mark Martin would make the Chase this season. Don't be shy. We know you're out there. Yes, there's team owner Rick Hendrick over in the corner with his hand up. My hand is up, too. Heck, I went so far as to say the 50-year-old driver might challenge for the championship now that he's got the power of Hendrick Motorsports behind him.
And he still might.
But it's not looking good.
Martin is 34th in points four races into the season. He's 35th in the all-important owner's points that determine the all-important top 35. He should be more worried about being guaranteed a spot in the field after the fifth race at Bristol than making the Chase.
That's a concern for a lot of drivers heading into the open week. Joe Gibbs Racing, for example, doesn't want the embarrassment of telling the folks at Home Depot that Joey Logano, 33rd in owner's points, wasn't fast enough to get into the sixth race at Martinsville.
As happy as Roger Penske is that Kurt Busch won Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and is third in points, he'd be equally happy to see Sam Hornish Jr. (31st) and David Stremme (26th) solidly in the top 35.
Less thrilled have to be the folks at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Aric Almirola ranked 36th, and Yates Racing with Paul Menard 38th and Travis Kvapil 39th. It's really tragic for Kvapil, who had to give up the points he earned last year to Bobby Labonte and is not guaranteed a ride after Bristol if sponsorship isn't found.
"This was the last thing we needed to have happened," said Kvapil, who finished 42nd after losing an engine 32 laps into Sunday's race. "We could have finished top-20, top-15 pretty easily, so that would have probably got us right where we needed to be.
"It's just disappointing."
But Martin's start, more than any, has to have NASCAR soothsayers in a panic. My ESPN The Magazine colleague and resident Power Rankings guru Ryan McGee had Martin ninth to start the season. Maybe he should be the one sitting on a couch getting therapy instead of giving advice to others.
Not that Martin has had much to say about his position. He blew engines in consecutive weekends at California and Las Vegas. A cut tire left the pole-sitter 31st at Atlanta.
The last time Martin had three straight finishes of 31st or worse in a season? Well, never. And for Martin, that's a long time.
But there are some good stories in this top-35 battle. David Gilliland, who was left without a ride when Yates brought in Menard and Labonte, is 34th for partially funded TRG Motorsports.
"We didn't put a scratch on the car for the third race in a row," he said after Sunday's 24th-place finish. "That is our first goal, as we don't have 10 of them sitting at the shop. We are doing what we have to do right now and I am real proud of all of the guys."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was on the top-35 bubble entering Atlanta, is solidly in at 24th after consecutive finishes of 10th and 11th. That has to make NASCAR officials happy, because now they won't have to devise a new rule to assure the sport's most popular driver drives on Sundays.
If you listened to Earnhardt over the weekend he won't be happy until they blow up the new car, which he called a "hell of an excuse for a racecar."
"We are doing about as miserable as we can do without being too upset about it," Earnhardt said. "I would like to run better than that. We struggled all day. We just can't struggle."
Just ask Martin and all those that picked him to make the Chase.
Nationwide Series: Back at it at Bristol
NASCAR's second-tier series took the weekend off and will resume March 21 at Bristol.
Camping World Truck Series: Regulars looking for a break from Busch
Hornaday has started the season with three top-10s, but trails the Busch-whacker by 124 points in the standings. That's because Busch has been unbelievable, finishing second at Daytona and winning the past two races at California and Atlanta.
He's expected to make the next race at Martinsville one of his 12 to 15 events for Billy Ballew Motorsports. His first week away from the trucks likely won't come until the fifth race at Kansas.
The Cup series is at Talladega that weekend, and Busch is running primarily at tracks where the series share a weekend.
Busch potentially could take the Kansas weekend off and still lead the points. Todd Bodine, who is second, says he won't enter the next race unless his Germain Racing team finds a sponsor.
Bodine is 25 points behind Busch, followed by Mike Skinner (-119) and Hornaday.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday's SportsNation Chat
Ryan McGee has his finger on the pulse of NASCAR, and he stopped by to answer your questions. Don't agree with his Power Rankings? Have a burning question? McGee will be here every Monday to mix it up with SportsNation at 2 p.m. ET.
Racing Resources SaysSprint Cup Series
- Kurt Busch won the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway after starting second. Busch posted his 19th career series victory in 296 races. His last victory came at Loudon on June 29, 2008, 23 races ago. This was his third top-10 finish in four races this season. Busch moved to 33rd on NASCAR's all-time win list, tying Davey Allison, Buddy Baker and Fonty Flock.
- Busch posted his third victory in 79 races on 1.5-mile tracks. Busch has scored 28 top-10 finishes in 79 races on 1.5-mile tracks (35 percent).
- This is just the second win by a Dodge at Atlanta since Richard Petty won here in March 1977. Kasey Kahne won in a Dodge in this race in 2006.
- This was Busch's second Atlanta victory in 17 races. Crew chief Pat Tryson posted his seventh Cup career victory in 377 races. Four of his crew-chief victories have come with Busch.
- Busch led six times for 234 laps, including the final two laps. This is the most laps that he has led in a Cup race.
- This is the second victory for Penske Racing at Atlanta. Penske's other Atlanta win came in November 1993, with Rusty Wallace.
- Jeff Gordon leads the series points standings by 43 over second-place Clint Bowyer. Race-winner Busch is third in points, just three points behind Bowyer. Gordon finished second, posting his fourth top-15 finish in 2009, the only driver to do so. Gordon extended his winless streak to 45 races, since October 2007 at Lowe's.
- Carl Edwards (finished third) posted his 125th lead-lap finish in his 161 career races (78 percent).
- Brian Vickers (fifth) scored his third straight top-10 finish. He finished 10th at California and eighth at Las Vegas. This marks just the third time in his career that he has scored three straight top-10 finishes.
- Clint Bowyer (sixth) extended a 77-race streak of running at the finish that began at Homestead in November 2006. Bowyer's last DNF came at Phoenix on Nov. 12, 2006, when he finished 33rd due to an oil-pump failure
- Jimmie Johnson finished ninth at Atlanta and was running at the finish. His crew chief, Chad Knaus, marked his 250th career race of running at the finish in 280 career races (89 percent).
- No. 20 Joey Logano (30th) was the highest-finishing rookie contender among the two rookies in the race. Scott Speed finished 35th.
- David Reutimann (32nd) ended a streak of three top-15 finishes.
- The top 10 consisted of six Chevrolets, two Dodges, one Ford and one Toyota.
- Kyle Busch won the American Commercial Lines 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, retaining his points lead in the series. He posted his fourth win in five series races at Atlanta. Busch is the only repeat winner in 10 series races at Atlanta. He posted his 11th series victory in 57 races. Busch was ninth with seven laps to go.
- Busch gave Billy Ballew Motorsports its 12th series win: 11 by Busch and one by Shane Hmiel.
- Busch posted his second win in three races this season; he won the previous race at Auto Club Speedway.
- Busch led four times for 33 laps, including the final five laps.
- Busch passed Todd Bodine with five laps to go; it was the first time Busch has passed Bodine for the win.
- Doug George, Busch's crew chief, scored his second career win.
- Busch now has 46 NASCAR wins, 13 Cup, 22 NNS and 11 NCWTS.
- This is the third time the pole winner won in the 10 Truck races at Atlanta, joining Mike Skinner (March 2007) and Todd Bodine (March 2006).
- Busch has finished in the top 10 in his past 15 series starts, dating back to Texas in June.
- Bodine, who finished third, has finished in the top five in the past nine series races.
- Tayler Malsam (13th) was the highest-finishing rookie contender among the seven rookies in the race.
- The top 10 consisted of six Toyotas and four Chevrolets. The highest-finishing Ford was James Buescher, 14th. Ford has yet to win at Atlanta. The only other active track that Ford has not won at is Lowe's. The best Dodge finish was 23rd by Jason White.