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Gears shift in chase for intensity, interest

Auto racing: NASCAR changes course on how to determine the year's champion, going to a format that creates a regular season and then playoffs like other pro sports

Auto Racing

February 10, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

But Mayfield's crew chief, Tommy Baldwin, said he'll probably hold on to some of the allowed test sessions for later in the season to make sure his car is competitive in the last 10 races should his driver make the cut.

And Roger Penske, who owns the cars of Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman, said other strategies will change, too.

"Our focus will be to win races," he said. "But as you get toward race 24, 25 and 26, the strategy will be completely different. The guy that's soundly in is not going to want to make a mistake. He's going to want to try to finish, so reliability becomes important. Taking a chance on the engine won't happen, but those are the things that are going to make it interesting.

"Being in the top 10 with 10 races to go with only 45 points between first and 10th, to me, that's going to be outstanding. It's going to make for some great racing."

And some great tension.

"The guy who makes the mistake in the final 10 races," driver Kurt Busch said, "is going to lose the championship."

That's drama. And that's what NASCAR is looking for.

Changing the game

Highlights of NASCAR's new points system:

* The Nextel Cup series will cut to a top 10 (and anyone else within 400 points of the leader) after 26 races, and only those drivers will be eligible to win the series over the final 10 races, called The Cup Chase to the Championship.

* The first-place driver in The Chase will begin with 5,050 points; the second-place driver will start with 5,045. Incremental five-point drops will continue through the list of title contenders.

* Points are awarded this way throughout the season: The winner receives 180 points, the runner-up 170. From there, the point total declines in five-point increments for places two through six, four points for positions seven through 11 and three points for 12th place or lower. There are also bonus points for leading laps.

How they would have finished

Here is a look at how different last year's top 10 would have looked under NASCAR's new points system:

Actual 2003 finish ............ 2003 finish under new system

1. Matt Kenseth ................. 1. Jimmie Johnson

2. Jimmie Johnson ............ 2. Jeff Gordon

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. ......... 3. Ryan Newman

4. Jeff Gordon .................... 4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

5. Kevin Harvick ................ 5. Kevin Harvick

6. Ryan Newman ................ 6. Matt Kenseth

7. Tony Stewart-a .............. 7. Bobby Labonte

8. Bobby Labonte .................8. Terry Labonte

9. Bill Elliott-a .................... 9. Kurt Busch-b

10. Terry Labonte ..............10. Michael Waltrip-c

a-Would not have qualified for The Chase to the Championship. b-Finished 11th last year. c-Finished 15th last year.

SOURCE: NASCAR

Daytona 500

When: Sunday, noon

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

TV: Channels 11, 4

Pole winner: Greg Biffle

Last year's winner: Michael Waltrip

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