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Gears shift in chase for intensity, interest

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Sunday's Daytona 500, Nextel Cup teams will begin racing under NASCAR's new points system that essentially sets up a regular season and a postseason.

It is a system that is being met with a wait-and-see attitude by some, and one that is causing some teams to rethink their strategies. But at least one driver has no problem with the change that is bringing stock car racing more in line with other pro sports.

"Until now, we've been the only major form of team sports without a postseason or playoff," Jeff Burton said. "We've always had an exciting beginning but not always an exciting finish. There's nothing wrong with taking the good from other sporting events."

Major league sports are filled with memorable postseason moments, from Babe Ruth's "called shot" in the 1932 World Series to Franco Harris' 1972 "Immaculate Reception," to last October's National League Championship Series game that turned on a Chicago Cubs fan's reaching for a foul ball.

"If there were just regular seasons," Burton said, "none of those things ever would have happened. I like the drama of those things. I like watching those things. And I like that I'm now going to have the chance to participate in those kind of dramatic finishes."

Under the new system, the first 26 races of the Nextel Cup season will act as the regular season during which drivers will qualify for "The Cup Chase to the Championship."

To make The Chase, drivers have to be in the top 10 or within 400 points of the leader after those 26 races. The top driver will start the final 10 races with 5,050 points, and each successive driver in The Chase will have five points fewer, making a 45-point margin between first and 10th place.

Those teams that aren't in The Chase will still race each Sunday but will not be eligible to win the Nextel Cup or be able to move ahead of any of the qualifying drivers in the standings. They can, however, act as spoilers, giving their sponsors a boost by finishing ahead of The Chase teams and even winning races.

"I think you've got to bring your 'A' game every weekend now," said driver Sterling Marlin. "NASCAR has got everything pretty close ... and I think it's going to be a deal, if you see you're going to end up in the top 10, you might go do some more testing at different tracks or start building some new cars. For us, it won't be a problem. You don't worry about the mule. You just load the wagon."

As the Winston Cup Series, the top level of stock car racing was doing just fine. It had moved from being below the radar to ranking second only to the NFL in average television ratings.

But NASCAR wants more. With Nextel as the new series sponsor providing increased advertising exposure and with a new points system in place, NASCAR is running on all cylinders toward becoming more like other pro sports and, it reasons, more familiar to new fans. And NASCAR hopes that will translate into even greater popularity.

The change in the system is designed to make drivers try harder in every race and keep interest intense in the closing part of the season, when the sport goes head-to-head with the NFL. Drivers who win a race will receive a five-point bonus. And drivers who finish in the top 10 will be guaranteed a minimum payoff of $1 million.

But the question facing the competing teams is this: Is it business as usual on the racetrack?

NASCAR suggested its drivers needed a nudge to drive harder after Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth said last season they'd have no problem finishing second in races if it meant they could win the championship.

But 1999 series champion Dale Jarrett seemed offended by the new system.

"We're all out there driving as hard as we can every lap now," he said, wondering how teams will react to the new circumstances that also include NASCAR's allowing seven additional car tests this season.

(NASCAR limits the number of official car tests - trial runs on tracks where Nextel Cup races are run. Teams use the tests to make technical adjustments to their cars.)

"It will be interesting to see if teams save some of those dates for the final 10 races," Jarrett said, "because you have to run well enough to get to the top 10. I think you're going to have to have a good balance, a good game plan."

Jeremy Mayfield was another who said drivers didn't need incentives to compete harder.

"There's been talk that the system was changed because Matt only won one race," said Mayfield, referring to 2003 Cup champion Kenseth. "But I know Matt ran as hard as he could every lap. The organization might have tuned back on the motors and decisions might have gotten more conservative, but on the track Matt had to drive as hard as he could because it's so competitive out there.

"And it will be that way again this season. So our strategy will remain the same. We'll just keep racing as hard as we can and the points will take care of themselves. No matter what the system, you still have to run good."

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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