By TERRY BLOUNT / The Dallas Morning News
RICHMOND, Va. – NASCAR is about to enter an unknown zone.
The Chevy Rock and Roll 400 on Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway will set the field for the first Chase for the Nextel Cup, a format in which at least 10 drivers compete for the season championship in the final 10 races.
This is uncharted territory, not only for the teams in the Chase, but for those that fail to make the 10-race playoff. How it affects sponsor exposure and NASCAR scoring decisions also remains a bit of a mystery, although NASCAR said its approach to scoring won't change.
"It's going to be a whole new world," season points leader Jimmie Johnson said. "We're witnessing something different, and we'll learn together. It's a totally different environment than we've had in the past. I don't like it, but it's causing a buzz and doing its job."
Johnson is one of the drivers who opposed changing the points system, but he understands why it was done.
Too many times in the past, the championship was decided long before the season ended.
The goal is to gain attention for the stretch run, when NASCAR has to compete with football and the World Series for interest from fans and the media.
All indications are it's working as planned, except for the one word everyone uses that NASCAR hates: playoff. NASCAR officials don't like the term for several reasons.
Drivers not in the Chase continue to compete every week with a chance to win races. NASCAR wants to keep its sponsors happy, so it doesn't want to use a term that implies that 75 percent of the starting grid no longer matters.
How the team sponsors view the Chase is one of the gray areas of the new system.
For rookie Brendan Gaughan and his sponsor, Kodak, being out of the Chase brings some concerns.
"There's a little fear from our perspective that NBC will only concentrate on the top 10," Gaughan said. "The Chase isn't supposed to change the way the race is televised. We just want to make sure they still give equal coverage to the car leading the race. As long as they do that, I have no problem with it."
According to NBC broadcaster Allen Bestwick, Gaughan and others don't have to worry.
"If you're covering football or baseball, you have a camera on the ball and you have 90 percent of the story covered," Bestwick said. "The problem with an auto race is figuring out where the ball is, and it changes every second.
"It might be the leader, it might be the guy in 30th, it might be on pit row. Just like we do in any other race, our job is to keep finding the ball."
NASCAR officials are sensitive to the feelings of noncontenders. They reportedly have rejected offers to promote the drivers in the Chase and to create special color schemes for the contending cars.
In some ways, the Chase may bring more coverage to teams that wouldn't have received much in the past.
The driver who was 10th in the standings in past years had no chance of winning the title with 10 races remaining. That driver now will receive attention whether he's leading the race or not.
And if more viewers are watching, which is what NBC and NASCAR hope, everyone in the race receives more attention.
"Teams shouldn't blame the system or TV if they don't get exposure," said Jeff Gordon, who has won four championships. "If you want attention, lead some laps and win some races. That's the same as it's always been, but this thing is going to be more exciting."
Excitement was lacking last season when Matt Kenseth had more than a 400-point lead with 10 races to go. Critics said Kenseth was coasting as the season wound down, content to race for top-15 finishes rather than go for victories. This year, Kenseth is fifth in the standings and has secured a spot in the Chase.
Drivers were given an additional five points for each victory this season, but the Chase is not a system that emphasizes winning. On the contrary, drivers outside the Chase are the ones who can take chances and try to win races.
"Our team will look back at what we could have done if we don't make the Chase," said Jeremy Mayfield, one of seven drivers vying for the final three playoff spots. "If we don't get in, I expect to win some races in those final 10, because we can race all-out."
That's not true for the title contenders. Avoiding a crash or a blown engine that might cause a 40th-place finish is more important than racing for a win.
"If you run fifth every week in the last 10 races, I guarantee without a doubt you will win the championship," former champion Tony Stewart said. "We really will be racing nine other guys, even though 43 drivers are in the race. We will pay more attention to those nine contenders than the rest of the field."
Cup drivers have conflicting opinions on whether team orders will play a part in the Chase.
Will a driver not in contention be asked to do something for a teammate that he normally wouldn't do?
For example, if a noncontender is fifth on the last lap and a championship contender is sixth, will the noncontender let his teammate pass?
"This is not Formula One," Gaughan said. "We don't pull over for each other or block for each other. I drive for Kodak, and I have an obligation to them. If I'm in that situation, I'm driving the wheels off the thing."
No one really knows what scenarios might play out. And that may be exactly how NASCAR wants it.
"I was one of the drivers that didn't like the new system," said Jamie McMurray, who ranks 11th in the standings. "But I must admit, it's exciting to see all the coverage those of us trying to get into the top 10 have received the last few weeks. It's great for our sponsors. Overall, the new points system has been good for everyone."