Sunday, September 19, 2004

Racing's playoff starts today


NASCAR's new format

The Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - NASCAR implemented a new system for crowning its Nextel Cup series champion after abandoning the traditional points system used since 1975. The 10-race playoff system begins today at New Hampshire.

How the champion will be decided:

WHAT IS IT: A 10-race shootout, called "NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup Champion" that covers the final 10 events of the 36-race schedule.

THE RACES: Today - Sylvania 300, Loudon, N.H.; Sept. 26 - MBNA America 400, Dover, Del.; Oct. 3 - EA Sports 500, Talladega, Ala.; Oct. 10 - Banquet 400, Kansas City, Kan.; Oct. 16 - UAW-GM Quality 500, Concord, N.C.; Oct. 24 - Subway 500, Martinsville, Va.; Oct. 31 - Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, Hampton, Ga.; Nov. 7 - Checker Auto Parts 500, Avondale, Ariz.; Nov. 14 - Mountain Dew 500, Darlington, S.C.; Nov. 21 - Ford 400, Homestead, Fla.

WHAT HAPPENS: The 10 top drivers in the points standings after last Saturday's race at Richmond are the only ones eligible to race for the championship. Their point totals were reset in five-point increments, with Jeff Gordon, the leader, getting 5,050 points. Second-place gets 5,045 points and down the line to 10th place.

They will race as usual under the same scoring system used all year: A win earns 180 points, a last-place finish gets 34 points. Five-point bonuses are given to any driver who leads a lap, and an additional five-point bonus is awarded for leading the most laps in a race.

The points earned after each of the 10 events will be added to each of the eligible drivers' totals, and the champion will be crowned after the season finale Nov. 21.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: Aside from the Nextel Cup title, each driver in the top 10 will be paid a minimum of $1 million from the points fund. The champion will get at least $5 million.

WHAT'S LEFT: The remaining 33 drivers in the field still have something to race for - 11th place. NASCAR has guaranteed a $1 million payout to the 11th driver as incentive for the rest of the field. That driver will also be invited to the season-ending awards ceremony in New York, which has traditionally included only the top 10 drivers.

WHO'S IN THE CHASE

The 10 drivers competing in NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup, in order of points standings:

JEFF GORDON

• ADJUSTED CHASE POINTS: 5,050

• KEY 2004 STATS: 5 wins, 11 top 5s, 17 top 10s

• BEST SEASON FINISH: 1st (1995, '97, '98, 2001)

• OUTLOOK: If Gordon gets hot the way he did early this season - winning four-straight poles and three of six races - he could wrap up another championship quickly.

JIMMIE JOHNSON

• ADJUSTED CHASE POINTS: 5,045

• KEY 2004 STATS: 4 wins, 15 top 5s, 16 top 10s

• BEST SEASON FINISH: 2nd (2003)

• OUTLOOK: Dominated this season until his young Hendrick Motorsports team had three-straight DNFs in August.

DALE EARNHARDT JR.

• ADJUSTED CHASE POINTS: 5,040

• KEY 2004 STATS: 4 wins, 12 top 5s, 14 top 10s

• BEST SEASON FINISH: 3rd (2003)

• OUTLOOK: He's the overwhelming fan favorite to win the title, but inconsistency and occasional infighting among his Dale Earnhardt Inc. crew may hold him back.

TONY STEWART

• ADJUSTED CHASE POINTS: 5,035

• KEY 2004 STATS: 2 wins, 9 top 5s, 13 top 10s

• BEST SEASON FINISH: 1st (2002)

• OUTLOOK: Is usually at his best at the end of the season - he's won at seven of the final 10 tracks - but his temper often gets the best of him.

MATT KENSETH

• ADJUSTED CHASE POINTS: 5,030

• KEY 2004 STATS: 2 wins, 7 top 5s, 15 top 10s

• BEST SEASON FINISH: 1st (2003)

• OUTLOOK: His tendency to stay out of trouble and finish in the top 10 each week could lead to a title.

ELLIOTT SADLER

• ADJUSTED CHASE POINTS: 5,025

• KEY 2004 STATS: 2 wins, 6 top 5s, 10 top 10s

• BEST SEASON FINISH: 20th (2001)

• OUTLOOK: His easygoing attitude will keep him loose during the chase, but a tendency to get into on-track trouble could end his hopes.

KURT BUSCH

• ADJUSTED CHASE POINTS: 5,020

• KEY 2004 STATS: 2 wins, 4 top 5s, 12 top 10s

• BEST SEASON FINISH: 3rd (2002)

• OUTLOOK: Often in the center of controversy for off-track problems, he's kept a low profile this year that's made him a quiet favorite.

MARK MARTIN

• ADJUSTED CHASE POINTS: 5,015

• KEY 2004 STATS: 1 Win, 7 top 5s, 11 top 10s

• BEST SEASON FINISH: 2nd (1990, '94, '98, 2002)

• OUTLOOK: A four-time runner-up for the series title, he's the sentimental choice to finally win a championship.

JEREMY MAYFIELD

• ADJUSTED CHASE POINTS: 5,010

• KEY 2004 STATS: 1 Win, 4 top 5s, 10 top 10s

• BEST SEASON FINISH: 11th (1999)

• OUTLOOK: Would be considered a long shot for title if not for car owner Ray Evernham, who won three titles as crew chief for Jeff Gordon.

RYAN NEWMAN

• ADJUSTED CHASE POINTS: 5,005

• KEY 2004 STATS: 1 win, 9 top 5s, 12 top 10s

• Best season finish: 6th (2002, '03)

• OUTLOOK: An outspoken critic of the new points system, he barely made it in. But his fast qualifying runs and mastery of the intermediate tracks could loft him to the top.




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