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(AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)
Jeff Gordon continues to lead the Sprint Cup standings, once again proving that winning is not a requirement to rank at the top of the heap.
Kyle Busch has won two of the first five races and ranks fourth after his victory Sunday at Bristol. Matt Kenseth also has two victories, but he ranks 10th, again proving that victories don't guarantee a driver will make the 12-man Chase for the Cup field.
Gordon finished fourth Sunday, the fourth consecutive race he has finished sixth or better.
"I just love the fight these guys are putting up," Gordon said in a TV interview immediately after the race Sunday. "I mean, I wish the Chase was right now, because we are in championship form."
Well, upon further review, he might not wish the Chase was set to start. Gordon is 76 points ahead of second-place Kurt Busch at the moment. But Gordon would start fourth in the Chase at this point, 20 points behind Kyle Busch and Kenseth and 10 points behind Kurt Busch.
Gordon knows he has to get back to Victory Lane if he hopes to stay on top when playoff time comes. Drivers are seeded by victories, so leading the points won't be enough when the Chase starts in September.
But Gordon has plenty of time to change his winless status, 21 events, to be exact. Gordon has gone 46 consecutive races without a victory. That could change this weekend at Martinsville, a racetrack where he has won seven times.
Does it matter? Not necessarily.
Consider these historical facts. Martinsville is the sixth race of the season. In two of the five Chase seasons, the champion was winless after six events -- Tony Stewart in 2005 and Jimmie Johnson last year. But it happened only once in the six seasons before the Chase was implemented -- Kenseth in 2003.
Gordon believes he is racing at a level where the victories will come.
"We are very consistent," Gordon told reporters after the Food City 500. "We are fighting. We are making good adjustments and having great pit stops."
In other words, the team is doing everything right, with one small exception: It still hasn't ended the victory drought.
Gordon isn't concerned. The way the four-time champion and the No. 24 crew are performing this season bears little resemblance to the way things went last year when Gordon often struggled to compete on an even keel with Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson.
Gordon is ahead of all those contenders after five races. But a victory could erase any bit of lingering doubt some people may have regarding whether Gordon has fully returned to championship form.
In an incredibly odd scheduling quirk, the Nationwide Series will have its third off weekend in four weeks before racing at Texas Motor Speedway on April 4.
Kevin Harvick made Sprint Cup regulars 4-for-4 this season in Nationwide races with his victory in the Scotts Turf Builder 300 on Saturday at Bristol.
But a Cup regular who hasn't won a Nationwide race this year -- Carl Edwards -- continues to lead the standings. Edwards is running the full Nationwide schedule and hopes to win his second championship in three seasons.
A Cup regular has won the past three Nationwide titles. But a former Cup regular hopes to become a contender for the championship this season.
Brendan Gaughan, who is driving the No. 62 Chevy for Rusty Wallace Racing, ranks fourth in the standings, the highest-ranking Nationwide-only driver.
"I just really want to thank this whole team for giving me the chance to drive these hot rods," Gaughan said Friday at Bristol in a press conference. "I'm having more fun this year than I've ever had in racing."
Gaughan started on the pole at Bristol, his first Nationwide pole, but finished 21st. He is competing for the series' rookie of the year honors even though he raced a full season in Cup in 2004, finishing 28th in the standings.
But the rest of Gaughan's career was spent in the Camping World Truck Series, where he has eight career victories and finished fourth in the standings in 2003.
To win the title, Gaughan or any other Nationwide-only driver will need to beat Edwards and Kyle Busch, the other Cup regular planning to run the full Nationwide schedule.
Busch had a chance to win at Bristol before a pit-crew error on his last stop dropped him back in the field. He finished sixth. Busch blamed his crew over his radio and didn't speak to reporters after the event.
"We had a good car," said Jason Ratcliff, crew chief of the No. 18 Toyota that Busch drove. "Kyle drove the wheels off of it. He drove hard. When you work hard and you don't get your rewards for it, it's frustrating. It's frustrating for this race team, but we'll move on."
NASCAR's third-tier series took the weekend off and will resume Saturday at Martinsville.Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at email@example.com.
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