- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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LOUDON, N.H. -- Gentlemen, start your Chasing.
As NASCAR enters its fourth year with a postseason, it does so with a new look to the Chase for the Nextel Cup. The first three years led to championships for Kurt Busch (2004), Tony Stewart ('05) and defending champion Jimmie Johnson -- each of whom is in the Chase this season.
They proved to be the best of the 10 drivers in a given season over the year's final 10 races. NASCAR, though, has spiced things up for 2007. Well, it hopes that's what it has done, but the verdict on that will remain out until the checkered flag falls at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
Here's a look at 12 things to know as the Chase prepares to take the green flag Sunday afternoon at New Hampshire International Speedway (ABC, 1 p.m. ET):
1. Bigger is better
Stung in 2005 by the failure of both fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and four-time champion Jeff Gordon to make the Chase, NASCAR took a wait-and-see approach to the size of the Chase. When Stewart, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards -- the top three finishers in '05 -- missed the field last year, NASCAR had seen enough.
The Chase goes 12 drivers deep this year, though that wasn't enough for Earnhardt to make the field. In years past, there has been a furious battle for the 10th spot in the field, but that didn't really materialize this year with the 12th spot.
NASCAR, though, hopes more drama over the final 10 races will compensate for the lack of drama in the Race to the Chase.
2. So, how do you make the Chase?
One thing that didn't change is how the field is set. Starting in '04, NASCAR broke its 36-race season into a 26-race regular season and a 10-week postseason. Drivers in the top 12 in points after the 26th race at Richmond are entered in the Chase.
3. What about everybody else?
Unlike baseball's upcoming playoffs, the NASCAR field doesn't shrink during the Chase. There still will be 43 cars in the field each week. And though some think the Chase would be more dramatic if a driver were eliminated from contention after each race (think "Survivor"), all 12 drivers will be in contention until they're mathematically eliminated as the Chase winds down.
4. Do non-Chasers have any incentive?
Plenty, as a matter of fact. Last year, Stewart stole the spotlight by winning three of the year's final 10 races. Without the burden of "points racing," he was able to go all out and his Joe Gibbs Racing team was willing to take some chances.
Besides generating plenty of attention for his sponsors, Stewart's team built momentum. And although it can be debated whether that carries over into the next year's Daytona 500, a little momentum certainly can carry the crew through an offseason spent building new cars.
5. How does the Chase work?
Although NFL teams get homefield advantage based on their record, there's no such thing in NASCAR. So how, exactly, does the Chase work?
The first three years, all 10 drivers had their points reset to a minimum of 5,000 for 10th, up to 5,050 for the driver in first place after the "regular season."
This year, though, NASCAR opted to "seed" the drivers while attempting to make the "regular season" more meaningful. Each win in the first 26 races guaranteed a Chase driver 10 bonus points to start the Chase.
So Johnson, with six wins, starts with 5,060 points. Bowyer, winless through 26 races, starts with 5,000 points.
6. Do the bonus points matter?
Considering Kurt Busch beat Johnson by just eight points for the title in '04, it can safely be argued that Bowyer will have his work cut out for him. Sixty points might not seem like a lot over the course of 10 races, but it's a safe bet Bowyer would change spots with Johnson in an instant, given the opportunity.
7. Can a driver afford a bad race?
Up until now, the answer clearly has been yes. Several of them in fact. One of these years, that might change if a driver can reel off 10 straight weekends without a cut tire or broken engine part.
But as Johnson proved last year after a 39th-place finish at New Hampshire to open the Chase, a slow start can be overcome by a stretch of phenomenal races.
8. Is there strength in numbers?
Chevrolet certainly hopes so, as it has nine drivers in the field. Chevrolet already has clinched the manufacturers' title for 2007 and is aiming for a third consecutive driver to win the title. Depending how you view things, it's hard to see how Chevy can fall short as Johnson, Gordon, Stewart, Hamlin, Truex, Kyle Busch, Burton, Harvick and Bowyer are all in Chevys.
9. What about the hopes of Ford and Dodge?
With just two Fords and one Dodge in the field, it's obvious the parity NASCAR hopes for took a bit of a beating this season, but all is not lost.
With Kenseth and Edwards, Ford is represented by Roush Fenway Racing, a team that knows a thing or two about championships, having won two. Kenseth's consistent style could pay off, and Edwards is the type of driver who can get on a roll.
Kurt Busch, meanwhile, has a championship under his belt and has been surging since Pat Tryson joined his Penske Racing Dodge operation. Oh yeah, both Busch and Tryson aren't that far removed from their days working for Jack Roush, and Tryson led Mark Martin to the Chase the past three years.
10. Whither Toyota?
The first-year manufacturer doesn't even have a team in the top 35 in owners' points, let alone a driver within sniffing distance of the Chase. The good news, though, is that Joe Gibbs Racing moves to Toyota next year and has the cars of Stewart and Hamlin in the Chase this year. And Kyle Busch moves to the team's third car next year, so it's a good bet Toyota will be Chasing a year from now.
11. Is there a favorite?
Arguments can be made for most any of the drivers to emerge as the champion, but it's hard to argue that Hendrick Motorsports doesn't stand the best chance of producing the champion from among Johnson, Gordon and Kyle Busch.
12. Is there a dark horse?
Although Harvick, Hamlin and Burton have been strong at times, none has been up front as often as he would like. Still, it wouldn't be totally shocking if one of them won it all. It would be more of an upset if Truex or Bowyer claimed the crown.
Truex drives for Dale Earnhardt Inc., which has experienced more than its share of engine issues this year. And Bowyer has yet to win a Cup race, so expecting him to win the title might be asking too much.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.