Jimmie Johnson, left, talks with his crew chief, Chad Knaus. He leads in points but that doesn't mean as much this season.
LUKE BRODBECK / AP Enlarge
By MATT MARKEY
BROOKLYN, Mich. - Jimmie Johnson must feel like he is being robbed in broad daylight, and no one can do a darned thing about it. Barring a major calamity, Johnson would be walking off with a $5.3 million dollar prize at the end of the season for winning the Nextel Cup championship.
But that is under the old rules. The new format will throw a wrench into Johnson's works and, if he holds the lead, make him win the points race all over again in the final 10 races of the season.
After today's GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway, there will be just three races to go before NASCAR takes the top 10 in the points race and bunches them together for its Chase for the Championship over the final 10 races of the season.
The formula works like this:
After the 26th race of the season, the Top 10 and anyone else within 400 points of the leader will earn a berth in the "Chase for the Championship."
All drivers in the "chase" will have their point totals adjusted so that the first-place driver in the standings will start the chase with just a five-point lead on the second-place driver, and so on down through the list of title contenders.
If that realignment took place right now, Johnson would lose 35 points of his lead over runner-up and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.
Johnson's lead over 10th place driver Jeremy Mayfield (487 points) would be cut by more than 90 percent to just 45 points.
The idea was to create a playoff-type atmosphere over the final stretch of the season, when NASCAR traditionally gets pushed to the back pages by the NFL and college football. Adjusting the point totals will put more drivers in play for the title, and create excitement, sccording to NASCAR officials.
Johnson tries to remain philosophical, despite the apparent larceny.
"Deep down in the bottom of my heart, I have not fully agreed with the new points system, but it is how it is and worrying about it is not going to change our strategy," Johnson said.
He will start on the pole for today's race, since qualifying was rained out on Friday and the field was established according to season point totals.
"We'll just play it out," Johnson said. "I know there has been a lot of positive feedback on different levels for different teams especially since people eighth through 15th are now getting the exposure and having a chance to win it, which they may not have had in the past."
The winner of the Nextel Cup championship will pick up a check for $5,280,753 after the season wraps up after the final race at Homestead in late November. The runner-up receives $2,280,325, and to soften the blow of just missing the playoff run, the driver who finishes 11th and just misses the cut for the "Chase" will receive almost $1 million in prize money and bonuses.
If the cutoff were to take place today, a lot of big names would be out of the Chase, including Dale Jarrett, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Kasey Kahne. Gordon, who will likely benefit from the new format, is still skeptical about the whole deal.
"I'm still evaluating it all as we go," Gordon said. "When we get down to the last 10 races, then it's really going to show a lot. I still think it's a bit drastic that we work to this point in the season and work as hard as we can to get that points lead or get to the top of the points, and it all gets taken away. I think they're taking a little bit too much away."
Gordon admitted that the new alignment has put the spotlight on the second half of the top 10 and the main challengers for those positions, instead of leaving it solely on the leader and his immediate challenger, as in the past.
"The thing I think I like about the points race right now that's really exciting is that it makes sixth or seventh through 15th very interesting," Gordon said. "That's something we never really focused on this much before. Now there is that focus."
With that increased pressure to make the top 10 might come some dangerous risk-taking, and Gordon voiced a concern over that possibility developing, especially in the final race before the Chase.
"Depending on how far out of the top 10 you are, the more risks you're going to take to get there," he said. "I think they all know that first you have to finish the race, then you got to worry about where you're going to finish. I don't think it's time yet. I think the last race leading into the top 10 or the last two is when you're going to see guys get riskier and riskier."
Jeff Green, the 2000 Busch Series champ, knows what it's like to have a lead in the points race, and sympathizes with Johnson.
"If I'm Jimmie Johnson, I'm mad about it," Green said. "I've got mixed emotions about it. I won a championship in the Busch Series by 600 points. With 10 to go if they told me they were going to take those 600 points away, and it was going to be five, I'd be pretty mad about it."
Elliott Sadler, who at this point is pretty secure in the top 10 at sixth, said he expects the racing to get rough and tumble once the field is set for the Chase for the Championship.
"Like everybody else, we want to be in that final10 at the cut-off point," Sadler said, "and when we get there, we'll take the gloves off and see what happens."
Kevin Harvick, currently eighth in points, says the jury is still out on the Nextel Chase system.
"You have to go through the whole thing once and see how it shakes out, and then we can criticize it or talk about whatever we need to talk about then," Harvick said. "We need at least one full experience of the point system before we can really evaluate how it works."