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Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Updated: March 18, 1:11 PM ET
You already can throw out the script

By David Newton
ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Wake Forest was 10-0 en route to a 16-0 start and No. 1 ranking six weeks into the 2008-09 college basketball season. Clemson was 12-0 and a fast climber in the polls. Louisville had two losses and wasn't ranked in the Top 25.

Fast-forward to Sunday's selection show during which the 65-team bracket for the NCAA tournament was announced.

Wake Forest is a No. 4 seed with six losses. Clemson is a 7-seed with eight losses after finishing only two games better than .500 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

And Louisville is the No. 1 seed of the entire field.

My point?

Don't get too caught up in what has happened during the first four races of the Sprint Cup season. A lot can change between now and the 26th race at Richmond International Raceway, where the 12-driver field for the championship chase will be set.

A year ago, Jimmie Johnson was 13th in points -- exactly where he is now, it should be noted -- headed into the fifth race at Bristol Motor Speedway. We all know how that turned out. He made it into the Chase for the Cup, then ran away with his third consecutive title, a feat done only once before in the history of the sport.

Carl Edwards was all the way back at 17th. He rallied to win a series-high nine races and finish second in points.

Kyle Busch was the points leader, ready to take off on a surge that would include eight wins before the Chase. He had to make a late surge just to finish 10th in the final standings.

There always are surprises. They are what keep things interesting.

More certainly will come, but here are the top ones thus far as the series moves to the "World's Fastest Half-Mile Track" in the foothills of Tennessee.

Gordon's back

The skeptics were really down on the four-time champion after he went winless last season. He couldn't drive the new car. He was too distracted by fatherhood to contend for another title. He was too old.

Jeff Gordon, Steve Letarte
Jeff Gordon, left, and crew chief Steve Letarte seem to have found their mojo.

Oops.

In case you haven't noticed, Gordon is leading the points with two top-5s and three top-10s. He hasn't won a race -- we won't count a victory in the 150-mile qualifier at Daytona because it wasn't for points -- but a pair of seconds at California and Atlanta have him knocking on the door.

Ray Evernham, who was Gordon's crew chief for his first three titles, noticed the old swagger before the season. It's hard to miss it now.

Is it because Baby Ella is sleeping through the night, which means Daddy Four-time is as well? Or because of the new workout routine 50-year-old teammate Mark Martin guilted him into?

Or could Gordon simply be feeling the pressure to put another title between him and Johnson so that he keeps his seat as the top driver at Hendrick Motorsports?

Whatever it is, the older Gordon looks like the Gordon of old.

Dodge resurgence?

Don't get sucked into thinking Dodge is back just because Kurt Busch is third in points after an impressive victory at Atlanta and Kasey Kahne is ninth.

Remember last season? After four races, three Dodge teams were in the top 12. Ryan Newman was fourth with a win in the Daytona 500, Kahne was seventh and Busch was 10th.

Now, do you remember where all the Dodge drivers were once the Chase began? On the outside looking in. The highest-ranked driver was Kahne in 13th. Newman was 16th and Busch 19th.

That's not to suggest there won't be a Dodge driver in this year's Chase. The Penske program appears to have its game back, particularly on the intermediate tracks where it was so bad last season.

Then again, people thought the organization was back after Newman and Busch finished 1-2 in the Daytona 500 last year.

Dodge fans should be optimistically cautious, as former South Carolina basketball coach Steve Newton used to say.

Anybody know where he is these days?

Engine woes

You expect a few blown engines early in the season while the kinks are being worked out.

But not as many as we've seen thus far. And not from top teams such as Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports.

Roush lost three engines in the first four races, and partner Yates Racing lost two more. That's three more than the Roush-Yates program lost all of last season, leaving chief engine guru Doug Yates scratching his cylinder head.

HMS has lost three engines, including two by Mark Martin in consecutive races at California and Las Vegas to leave him 35th in owner's points.

Toyota has had its share of issues as well, having to change five engines at California.

Everybody has reasons for what's happening, from higher RPMs created by higher speeds to bad parts to inefficient lubricants. The bottom line? Whatever has happened has had a significant impact on the standings.

At 35th in owner's points, Martin is in danger of not being among the top 35 guaranteed a spot in the March 29 race at Martinsville. Earnhardt is 24th in points. Roush's David Ragan is 22nd.

All three were considered Chase candidates before the season.

More Martin

Two months ago, everybody had Martin pegged to make the Chase. Some had him winning the title.

That he is this far back in points may be the biggest surprise of the year, bigger than the fact that Clint Bowyer ranks second with a first-year team or that Matt Kenseth opened with consecutive wins or that Tony Stewart is sixth in points with his new team.

Not that this is Martin's fault. He can't help that the usually dependable Hendrick engines broke. Or that he had problems in Atlanta that left him 31st after putting the No. 5 on the pole.

Maybe he's just setting the stage for the biggest comeback story of the year. He could be NASCAR's version of Louisville: from unranked to the top of the heap.

If he stays marred deep in points, the story could turn into: "When will he officially retire and let the No. 5 start building for the future?"

Either way, it's a surprise story.

Tiregate

Outside of close friends and family, nobody knew who Jimmy Watts was prior to the season. The entire NASCAR community knows him after his "mistake" at Atlanta.

Surprise!

NASCAR officials apparently were surprised when Watts chased a tire from Marcos Ambrose's car across pit road into the infield grass during a Lap 67 pit stop. They were considering letting green-flag stops cycle out before throwing the caution but had no choice but to call one immediately with the rather large gas man in the middle of harm's way.

Fewer than 10 drivers were left on the lead lap, changing the entire afternoon.

Surprise, surprise.

Watts first was suspended for the remainder of the race, then for the next four races. Ensuing Web site stories received Earnhardt-like hits. Radio talk shows were inundated with calls.

The good news for Watts?

He surprisingly has enough free time to watch the entire NCAA basketball tournament to see a few more surprises.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.