DOVER, Del. - At this point a year ago, Winston Cup driver Jeff Burton knew whom he had to beat if he wanted to win the Winston Cup championship.
But now? Burton looks around the garage area at Dover Downs International Speedway, where the MBNA Platinum 400 will be run today, and can't point anywhere.
It's hard to hit a moving target.
"It's like you're racing the whole world," he said. "I'm racing everybody now. The sport has just gotten so much harder."
Twelve races into this season, the Winston Cup series has had 11 different winners go to Victory Lane. Burton can tick them off: Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Ward Burton, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Jeremy Mayfield, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (twice) and himself.
"Because of the way it is, I think everyone is afraid of making a mistake," Burton said. "When you make a mistake, the penalty is much bigger than it used to be. I think the guy who makes the fewest mistakes is going to win it."
Which seems to mean that year 2000 is turning into what Winston Cup drivers will come to refer to as "The Year of Intelligence."
"You definitely have to be smart at what you do," said Jarrett, who was last year's target from March until he clinched the title in November. "And not just on the racetrack. You have to be smart with your team, smart in making pit stops. You have to think about your car now. You can't afford to make mistakes."
At the moment, Labonte holds a 54-point lead over Ward Burton. Martin, Earnhardt and Jeff Burton round out the top five, and all of them are within 104 points. Jarrett is in sixth place, 146 points back. All are contenders.
The men involved say it isn't a matter of whom the best driver is. They say the sport has changed so much, they don't even know whom the best driver is and don't know how to figure it out.
"It isn't like if we went to an NBA game and looked at the centers and could make a determination," Jeff Burton said. "In basketball, all the physical and mental skills are right out there on display for everyone to see. But it's not like that in our sport. It isn't even a matter of whose car is best. There are about 15 drivers with cars that are capable of winning, and the cars have become so extremely reliable that they seldom break."
Three-time champion Jeff Gordon, who is eighth in points, 237 points behind, also uses a basketball reference when talking about how much more difficult it is to get and make up points this season.
"It's hard to get on a roll and make up a 12-point deficit," Gordon said. "In basketball, they shoot a lot of three-pointers and hope to get back in it. Here, if you're down a lot, you have to take risks and chances and lead laps as much as you can. These days, it's very tough to do that."
It's difficult because the Winston Cup points system rewards consistency and, at times like these, the system comes under scrutiny.
Those who don't like it point out that there is no great reward for winning. The driver who finishes second in a race can earn as many points as the winner, if the second-place finisher led the most laps in the race. And points are awarded to all competitors.
Those who like the system say consistency over the full season is what makes a champion.
The system went into place in stock car racing's early days when getting enough competitors to attend regularly was a problem. That's why a premium was put on consistency: It encouraged teams to come every week.
But now, competitors' eyes stray to the points standings of other racing series. Formula One, for example, has a points system that rewards the winner with nine points, three points more than second place, and gives only the top six finishers any points.
In that system, Bobby Labonte would still be first, but those chasing him would change, in one case drastically.
In the Formula One points system, Labonte would have 35 points, followed by Jeff Burton with 31, Dale Earnhardt with 27, Dale Jarrett with 25, Dale Earnhardt Jr. with 21, Mark Martin with 20 and Ward Burton 19.
Earnhardt Jr. is 16th in Winston Cup points, 350 behind, despite being the only driver with two victories.
But the Winston Cup scoring system isn't going to change this season and perhaps never.
Bill Elliott, the 1988 champion who is 15th in points, said from his perspective on the outside looking in that just one bad race, one thoughtless error, will be difficult for drivers in contention to overcome.
"It doesn't even have to be falling out of a race and finishing last," Elliott said. "For the top contenders it can simply mean a top 10 finish instead of being in the top five. That's how close it is."
MBNA Platinum 400
Today's lineup(Car number in parentheses)
1. (2) Rusty Wallace, Ford, 157.411 mph.
2. (94) Bill Elliott, Ford, 157.343.
3. (55) Kenny Wallace, Chevrolet, 157.157.
4. (6) Mark Martin, Ford, 157.143.
5. (12) Jeremy Mayfield, Ford, 156.972.
6. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 156.842.
7. (28) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 156.794.