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With all this Bengals stuff, let's talk NASCAR

This is the first of nine installments recapping the NASCAR racing season. I know this isn't the proper place for a NASCAR piece so be kind on your "this isn't the forum" remarks. But I really enjoy it during this dead NFL season (especially as a Bengals fan). Hey, perhaps I may get some of you enjoying it too. I understand that this isn't everyone's cup of tea, so just move on if it isn't.

The Car of Tomorrow debuted Sunday for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. After the initial laps -- watching cars cosmetically different than their predecessors -- the noticeably factor faded. It was the same sponsors. It was the same colors. It was the same drivers up front. Speeds were slightly slower, but who notices a five MPH difference when they're going 120? I believe running at Bristol was strategically planned by NASCAR. This track doesn't depend on down force like a two-mile track does. This track has a history of controversy and rivalries. This track would easily shift the focus from the car to the race to the likely hood of rivalries after the race. And in many ways, the COT really became secondary after the race was in fourth gear (my enjoyable pun placement).

After five races, Jeff Gordon leads the standings by three points over Jeff Burton. Gordon's best finish this season is second at California and Las Vegas. His worst finish came in Atlanta (12th). During this stretch, Gordon, Burton and Mark Martin are the only drivers to have four top-ten finishes. Burton is the only driver to have four top-five finishes. Martin started the season as the class of the field scoring a second, two fifth-place and a tenth-place. He gave up the points lead after leaving the seat for rookie Regan Smith -- who finished in 25th, three laps down. Jeff Burton has finishes of second (Bristol), third (Daytona), fourth (California), fourth (Atlanta) and 15th (Las Vegas).

Another story following the race is the top-35 used to guarantee spots for qualifying has been revised. From Daytona to Bristol, the teams that finished in the top-35 last season were guaranteed a spot in the race. After Bristol, each qualifying session uses the existing points, that week, and allows exemptions in qualifying to the those in the top-35 in points. Notable drivers outside the top-35 are Dave Blaney, Dale Jarrett, Brian Vickers, Scott Riggs and Michael Waltrip (who has accumulated a staggering -25 points). Kasey Kahne is 34th, 22 points away from being outside the top-35.

The best driver/team right now has to be a toss-up between Jeff Gordon (leading points), Jimmie Johnson (two wins), Jeff Burton (four top-five finishes) and Mark Martin (6th in points even AFTER missing Bristol). But you have to give some credit to Clint Bowyer who has had strong runs in California, Atlanta and Bristol. Take out the 36th place finish after suffering a wreck at Las Vegas and he's up their with the points leaders. Bowyer is my pick for driver that records his first career win this season.

David Stremme is the surprise so far ranked 11th having good runs in each race completing 99% of all laps this season (1,546 of 1,548). He's completed every lap at Daytona, Atlanta and Bristol. He only finished one lap off the pace in California and Las Vegas. His average finish is 11 spots better than last year.

After the first five races:

Driver Points Behind Wins Top-5 Top-10
Jeff Gordon 791 -- 0 3 4
Jeff Burton 788 -3 0 4 4
Jimmie Johnson 716 -75 2 3 3
Matt Kenseth 697 -94 1 3 3
Kevin Harvick 647 -144 1 2 2
Kyle Busch 639 -152 1 1 3
Mark Martin 629 -162 0 3 4
Clint Bowyer 621 -170 0 0 3
Denny Hamlin 606 -185 0 1 1
Carl Edwards 598 -193 0 0 2

The second installment will be following the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 22.