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Upon closer review: this is a rather strange top-12 going into the Texas 500 -- only one winner?

  So what's up with Mark Martin this season? On the pole at Daytona, his best runs are a trio of fourths, at California, Vegas and Phoenix. And he's had rough days at Atlanta, Bristol and Martinsville. His last tour win was at Loudon, N.H. last fall, to kick off the championship playoffs. Currently he's 13th in the standings...and says he's looking for a Cup ride for 2012. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

  Now here's a curious stat, certainly worth pondering, going into Sunday's Texas Samsung 500: Only one driver in NASCAR's top-12 has won a race this season.
  Wonder what that means?
  Yes, that one driver is four-time champ Jimmie Johnson.
   But the action at just about every track has been frantic, three-wide stuff even at times. Crews are gambling, drivers are pushing and shoving....
   Tony Stewart, a surprise, is on the pole for the 3 p.m. EDT start. His teammate, Ryan Newman, won Phoenix last weekend.
   Kyle Busch dominated this fast 1-1/2-mile track last fall but ran out of gas late, giving the win to brother Kurt.
   Jeff Gordon won here last sprint, his first win at one of the tour's toughest tracks.
   Carl Edwards has won here more than any other driver, but after an amazing nine-win 2008, he's gone dry.

   Looking more closely at the Sprint Cup tour's top-12:

   So what to make about the winless 11?
   Matt Kenseth. Last win: California, February 2009.
   Greg Biffle. Last win: Dover, September 2008.
   Kevin Harvick. Last win: Daytona, February 2007.
   Jeff Gordon. Last win: Texas, April 2009.
   Clint Bowyer. Last win: Richmond, May 2008
   Jeff Burton. Last win: Charlotte, October 2008.
   Carl Edwards. Last win: Homestead, November 2008.
   Tony Stewart. Last win: Kansas, October 2009.
   Dale Earnhardt Jr. Last win: Michigan, June 2008.
   Joey Logano. Last win: Loudon, June 2009.
   Kyle Busch. Last win: Bristol, August 2009.

   And what are their best finishes so far this season?
   Matt Kenseth, 2nd at Atlanta.
   Greg Biffle, 3rd at Daytona.
   Kevin Harvick, 2nd at Las Vegas and at California.
   Jeff Gordon, 2nd at Phoenix.
   Clint Bowyer, 4th at Daytona.
   Jeff Burton, 3rd at California.
   Carl Edwards, 6th at Bristol.
   Tony Stewart, 2nd at Bristol.
   Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2nd at Daytona.
   Joey Logano, 2nd at Martinsville.
   Kyle Busch, 8th at Phoenix.


  Okay, Carl: Probation's over, time to start kicking butt again. NASCAR needs more victory backflips. Since that Atlanta controversy, Carl Edwards has bounced back to eighth in the standings. But the stock car tour needs a Jimmie Johnson stopper. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

At this point last season, seven races in, this was the top-12: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, David Reutimann and Jeff Burton. Seven of those went on to make the playoffs; but Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Reutimann and Burton missed the cut.

   Jeff Gordon, even though Johnson's teammate, seems just as frustrated as everyone else. Heck, he and crew chief Steve Letarte know everything Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are doing, and they're still looking for that first win of the year....that first win, actually, in exactly one year – and over that span Johnson has won nine times.
    "A lot of people are like 'Man, not him again? What do we have to do to beat them?'" Gordon says.
   "But everybody is beatable.  You just have to work hard and work in the right direction. 
    "However those guys have set the new standard." 
    Among the issues here in Sunday's Texas Samsung 500:
     -- the new flat-blade rear spoiler, for the first time at one of the tour's fastest tracks;
     -- the constant specter of a series of Green-White-Checkered overtime finishes;
     -- the double-file restart lineup, which makes those GWC sprints even wilder.

   Gordon, who won here a year ago, in a breakthrough run, says with the new flat-blade rear spoiler "it seems like you don't turn as much rpm -- like it has so much more drag that you don't gain as much speed down the straightaway. 
    "Through the corner I don't really feel any difference.
    "Until we go through this race and say we better rethink the way we're doing things, we're pretty much sticking with what we've been doing.
    "The biggest challenge is going to be in traffic, how this car with the spoiler reacts in traffic.  This is the biggest test of them all...Traffic and track position are so important here at Texas.  It's going to be that way even more so with the spoiler.


  Hey, Jeff. Who dreams up these paint schemes? Someone from the SyFy channel? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "When we're in traffic -- behind a car -- is the whole car losing grip, or are we just going to lose the front of the car...are we going to lose the back of the car? 
    "And is it at 20 car-lengths away...10 car-lengths away...five-car lengths away that it's affected the most? 
     "If I move a little to the right, to the left, how is that affecting it? 
      "The wing is more efficient; it doesn't throw off its wake like a spoiler does. 
       "Side-force: when a car gets to the outside of you, is it going to suck your car around more?  That didn't seem to be an issue at Phoenix; but we'll go faster here and see if it's an issue.
     "Also, with a car behind you: if a car gets right up behind you, is it going to affect your car more than with the wing?"

     Gordon's last couple of tour runs have been frustrating, because he could have won both Martinsville and Phoenix, and he was unusually angry about the losses.
    "That we weren't able to capitalize the last couple of races is definitely disappointing....at the same time it's encouraging we're putting ourselves in that position to be able to win," Gordon says.  "I think we are heading in the right direction."
    The GWC, and late race yellows, and late race pit stops (why in the world didn't more crew chiefs skip that final pit stop at the last few races in order to gain track position?) make for a lot of pressure on the crew chief: "Having to make the two-tire versus four-tire or no-tire call...that's a tough call," Gordon says. "Last week could have gone either way. The same at Martinsville. 
    "At Phoenix had the caution come out like it did in Martinsville, Jimmie probably would have won that race. But it didn't; so the four-tire call was the wrong call. 
     "At Martinsville, the caution had it not come out, the two-tire call was going to be the right one. 
    "And with the three green-white-checkered finishes they allow now, it's just a crap-shoot."

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                      The starting grid for Sunday's Texas Samsung 500


  Juan Pablo Montoya vainly waiting out Saturday's rain on the north Texas plains. At least he can get home early Sunday....since he's not running in Sunday night's (9 p.m. ET) rain-delayed Texas 300 Nationwide race also. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



The starting grid for Sunday's rain-delayed Texas 300 Nationwide race


   Haven't heard much out of Brad Keselowski lately. Remember that breakout NASCAR win at Talladega last April? And is it true that, despite all the complaints from rivals about this Sprint Cup newcomer, that he has never been reprimanded by NASCAR? Hmmmmm. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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