Finally, it's time.
After Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, all of the suppose-thises and what-about-thats everyone has had about the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship will be resolved.
By the end of the weekend, we'll know which drivers have a chance to win the 2004 Cup championship -- and which ones do not.
Because this is the first time the sport and its fans have dealt with this system, however, nobody really knows what to expect during the 10 races that begin a week from Sunday at New Hampshire.
In fact, some basic questions about what's going to happen still linger. So let's answer all we can:
- What happens to the points after Saturday night's race?
Going into New Hampshire, here's how the top 10 will look in the standings:
If another driver is within 400 points of first after the 26th race, which could happen this year, his total would be reset to 5,000. In fact, all drivers beyond 10th who qualify will be reset to 5,000 points and start the final 10 tied, even if it's 12, 13, even 15 drivers.
- Who's already in?
Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth have clinched berths. Elliott Sadler clinches a berth by merely starting at Richmond. Kurt Busch is assured of a spot if he finishes 42nd or better Saturday. Assuming Sadler and Busch are safe, eight other drivers are mathematically eligible for the three remaining top-10 slots.
- What happens if two drivers tie for 10th place?
NASCAR's tie-breaker system would go into effect. The driver with more wins would get the 10th position and the other would not make the Chase -- unless they're both within 400 points of the leader, of course.
If the tied drivers have the same number of wins, the next tie-breaker would be more second-place finishes, then third-place finishes, etc., until the tie is broken.
That process would be used to break ties within the top 10, as well. If two drivers were tied for fifth, for example, the tie-breaker would be used to give one 5,030 points and the other 5,025.
- What if somebody not in the Chase gets hot and wins a bunch of races in the final 10? Won't he be able to move up to finish in the top 10?
No. Moving the top 10 drivers ahead in the points is designed to put them far enough ahead so that 11th place couldn't catch 10th even if the 10th place driver was injured and didn't start any of the last 10 races. The thinking behind that is that you have to earn the right to race for the championship in the first 26 races, and if you don't, that's the price you pay for not making the cut.
- Does anything change about how the races will be run? It's not just going to be 10 cars on the track during the final 10 races, is it?
Each race will still have a 43-car starting field. The points will be distributed for each finishing position just as they are now. A Chase contender finishing fourth and leading a lap in a race would still get 165 points, just like a non-Chase driver would.
- If a driver gets hurt, can his team put another driver in his car and still race for the championship?
Again, no. As is always the case, a driver must start the race to get the points awarded for that car's finish -- the way Dale Earnhardt Jr. did after he suffered burns in July. If a driver can't compete, he gets no points. The team can put another driver in the car and race, and it will get car owner's points, but not driver points -- and the Cup championship is the drivers' points championship.
- So do points still mean anything for the drivers not in the top 10?
Yes. Points will continue to be added to the 26-race total for each non-Chase driver during the final 10. The driver finishing 11th will get special recognition and a $250,000 bonus at the awards banquet in December, and points-fund money will still be paid down beyond the top 10.
If more than 10 drivers make the Chase under the 400-point rule, the bonus still goes to the driver finishing 11th -- not to the first driver outside the Chase at season's end.
- How have the teams that expected to make the Chase altered their strategies to prepare for the final 10 races?
Several top teams have saved many of their allotted test dates for tracks that will be part of the final 10. Even teams that have used up some or all of their tests will take advantage of places such as Kentucky Speedway. Since Kentucky doesn't play host to a Cup race, test sessions held there don't count against a team's total.
- Will NASCAR still penalize teams points for infractions in the final 10?
Yes, if NASCAR deems a penalty is necessary, it would use the same process it uses now.