Depths Of Reality

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The way I figure it, you have to blame FOX. Or, then again, you might want to credit FOX, depending on your view.

The new racing network, as expected, has played to mixed reviews during its first season of hosting Winston Cup racing. The most obvious item FOX has brought to NASCAR is a little something we recognize from the network's work in the NFL - parity.

Just like the NFL, last year's middle-of-the-road franchise is this year's title contender, and last year's title contender - or champ - is this year's tag-along.

Sure, chances are, other factors are at work when it comes to finding Elliott Sadler, Steve Park and Sterling Marlin making big strides through the early part of the season. And it can't be simple bad luck, overnight losses of know-how, or that new Goodyear tire that have Bobby Labonte and the entire Roush Racing house back there pedaling along in lockstep with the rest of the field-fillers.

For a few years now, a lot of NASCAR followers have listed the following as their main gripe: Week after week after week, it's the same guys up front.

Seemingly, you could turn on the television midway through any race on any Sunday, the Top 5 would look something like this: Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte. Sure, every now and then a Bobby Hamilton or John Andretti would nudge his way in there, but you could set your watch by the Jarretts, Gordons and Martins.

Today, Jarrett and Gordon stand out for an entirely different reason - while the giants around them are tumbling to Earth, they've somehow managed to stay in the lead pack. In fact, they're running 1 (Jarrett) and 2 (Gordon) in the early-season points standings.

No one is totally surprised at Gordon returning to form, regardless of his ninth-place showing during last year's rebuilding season. And no one should be surprised that Jarrett is putting together yet another championship-caliber season.

No, the big shocks this year are deep in the standings.

Tony Stewart, a standout rookie two years ago and the series' top winner last year, is 17th in points. And that's actually better than his defending-champ teammate Labonte, who is 25th (Jack Roush gets all the bad press these days, but the Joe Gibbs wagon isn't exactly blazing a trail).

Sure, it's easy to point out that we're just seven races into a 36-race season, but every deep-field finish you have now, it stays in the book. The more cars between you and the first-place driver, the less chance you have to win it all.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 20th, and you have to blame much of his early-season slump on the obvious emotional stresses. But then again, you never know, because look at those Roush boys - Martin is 22nd and Matt Kenseth 23rd.

If you run into Martin and Kenseth, congratulate them, because they have it all over Roush teammate Jeff Burton, who sits way back there in 35th place, in bad need of a full-court press and a few three-pointers.

For a while now, many have clamored for new faces up front. Sunday at Texas, several strangers and near-strangers were in the mix - from Johnny Benson to Kurt Busch to Sadler. Chances are, even those who wanted such things are still wondering what to make of it.

And what's more, things promise to get stranger, since the circuit now moves along to the bandbox Martinsville Speedway - from Texas, one of its two or three fastest tracks, to its slowest.

Drivers have always insisted that the smaller the track (i.e. Martinsville) the bigger role the driver plays. If all of those big names back in the pack are as good as we've been led to believe, this week might be the time for them to start righting the ship.

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