Gordon, others know system dictates strategy
Jeff Gordon would rather not dwell on what might have been.
Told he would be leading the Nextel Cup points chase with two races to go if NASCAR had not switched to a new championship format this year, Gordon simply shrugged and smiled.
"That's good to know,'' the four-time champion said, "but that still doesn't really mean much. I've always said that the way you race is how the points are structured.
"We still have a shot at the championship.''
Indeed he does.
Entering Sunday's race at Darlington Raceway -- a track where he has won six times, including five Southern 500s -- Gordon trails series leader Kurt Busch by just 41 points.
The Nextel Cup playoff-style format was the brainchild of new NASCAR chairman Brian France. It divides the season into two parts, with the top 10 drivers after the first 26 races separated from the rest of the field for a 10-race showdown.
At first, nearly everyone else in NASCAR's hierarchy was against the idea, calling it too radical and unnecessary.
Then Matt Kenseth turned the 2003 championship race into a joke, not only moving out to a nearly untouchable lead midway through the season, but going on to take the title with numbing consistency and only one race win.
The Chase seemed the ideal way to allow NASCAR to get into a more competitive position in the fall, when baseball's postseason and the NFL are in full swing.
So far, so good.
Going into Darlington, this year's race is at least a four-man battle, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. just 47 points behind Busch and Jimmie Johnson one behind Earnhardt. Even fifth-place Mark Martin, 102 points out, isn't out of the championship picture.
Even so, if this season had been under the points system in use from 1975-2003, there still would have been a good race for the title.
Gordon would be 57 points ahead of Earnhardt and 62 in front of teammate and friend Johnson. Busch would be fourth, 222 points behind and all but eliminated from title contention.
Or would he?
"This is something motorsports has never seen before, with the regular season and then a playoff-type system,'' Busch said. "With the regular season, teams were still trying to develop their setups, maybe take risks because of their (points) cushion. Other teams used up their tests trying to get into these final 10 races because they were 12th to 15th in points.
"There were so many different avenues of what it took to get into the playoff system that it left the door wide open for when you did make it. We were a team that was well prepared with our tests. We had great race cars saved and built up. We didn't even race the car we won with in Loudon, N.H., in July until we took it back there in September for the start of the Chase.''
The strategy worked to perfection: Busch won again at the New Hampshire track, and he is the only contender with top 10 finishes in seven of the last eight races.
Meanwhile, Johnson nearly fell out of contention when his team, which had built a lead of 232 points over Gordon after race No. 20, began to experiment with new parts and pieces, ran into some bad luck and dropped to second place entering the championship.
Johnson continued to struggle, falling to ninth, 247 points behind Busch after the first four races of the Chase. It took a three-race winning streak -- the first since Gordon won four in a row in 1998 -- to get him back into contention.
"I think people were asking, 'Where did Jimmie Johnson go about 10 races ago,''' Johnson said. "But I think people have been in this sport long enough to know that you have your ups and downs. The timing of our downs wasn't the best for the championship battle, but we got it back and we're in the middle of it now.''
Would he and his team have done things differently if the old system were still in place?
"I'm sure we would have approached things with a somewhat different attitude, and I supposed other teams would have done the same,'' Johnson said. "The main thing, though, is that we are racing for this championship in this system, and we still have a shot at the championship.''
Gordon is generally happy with the new system, although he would like to see a few minor adjustments. That includes setting a minimum number of points per race so that a driver is not so heavily penalized for an engine failure, getting caught in a crash or some other major problem.
In the first eight races, each of the top 10 drivers has finished 30th or worse at least once. Contenders Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Elliott Sadler, Kenseth and Jeremy Mayfield have all been relegated to also-ran status by bad finishes.
"Because of the Chase, there needs to be a little bit more of a change in the points system, but you're still not having to race that much different than you used to,'' Gordon said. "I would like to see some restructuring, just some minor changes. But it doesn't upset me. We know what the conditions are and we have our mind-set on that.''
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press