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
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