It's going to be hard not to root for Jeff Gordon once the Chase starts. He has been almost too good through the first 25 races of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series season.
After tonight's race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, Gordon will be one of the favorites to win the Chase. At worst, he will be 20 points behind the leader in the Cup standings. At best, he will be tied for the lead.
He deserves better.
This season, Gordon has been by far the best driver in the Nextel Cup Series. The only problem is that Jimmie Johnson has been a little better in five of those races.
It looks like Gordon will enter the Chase as an underdog. After being on top for so long, he will all of a sudden be trailing, a Chase casualty put in a hole and forced to claw his way out.
But it's by design. The Chase manufactures drama and tension in the last 10 races of the year. It worked well the first three years. Then NASCAR added a wrinkle. Winning the most races became more important than having the most points once the Chase starts. Because of that, it looks as if Johnson will move from sixth to first in the Cup standings and Gordon will drop from first to second.
Johnson has been better than every Cup driver in only five races this season. Because of that, he will be rewarded as the best driver once the Chase starts.
But he hasn't been.
Clearly, Gordon has. But his four wins to Johnson's five means Gordon is second.
Forget his 317-point lead in the Cup standings. Forget his 14 top-five finishes. Forget all of that once the Chase starts. Gordon is No. 2.
"I'm just glad we've already clinched a spot and don't have to worry about racing our way in this weekend," Gordon said. "I think our points lead is a credit to how this team has performed this year."
If the first 25 races are any indication of how the Chase will play out, Gordon will be fine. But the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series definitely has two parts now. Two very distinct parts.
It sounds as if Gordon is happy to have a shot at the championship even though his performance in the first 25 races means little.
"But we know it's a whole new season once those final 10 races begin," Gordon said. "Any one of the 12 drivers can win the championship, which is why the Chase is so exciting."
Three of those 12 drivers - Gordon, Johnson and Kyle Busch - are from Hendrick Motor- sports. They have combined to win 10 races this year. No other team has more than four victories.
Clearly, team owner Rick Hendrick has put together the best team in the series. He has the two best drivers so far. And that might create problems once the Chase starts.
"I think this is a great problem," said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet. "Rick has three cars capable of winning the championship with Kyle, myself and Jeff. We're all very strong mentally. We all want to win. We all want to race hard. We all want to be a champion for our own reasons: Kyle wants his first, Jeff wants his fifth. I want my second."
One of the Hendrick drivers deserves to win the Cup championship this year. If there is justice in the NASCAR world, that driver will be Gordon.
"When I first think in my mind of who I'm going to have to fight for the championship, I think of my teammates, and that's a huge credit to Rick Hendrick Motor- sports," Johnson said. "There are a lot of other cars out there, and it's going to be a long 10 races, to say the least. But I think my teammates, out of the three of us, we should get it done."
Tim Haddock writes for the Los Angeles Daily News.