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NASCAR retools points system, pumps last 10 races

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NASCAR retools points system, pumps up last 10 races

By RICK MINTER

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Concord, N.C. -- NASCAR embarked on a new era Tuesday with the unveiling of a 10-race "Chase for the Championship" among the top 10 or so drivers at the end of each season, the sport's biggest overhaul of its points system in 28 years.

The new format is aimed at increasing interest among fans and TV viewers during the fall months when NASCAR goes head to head against football and the baseball playoffs.

Though the new plan was hailed by NASCAR officials, many drivers and car owners in the Nextel Cup series gave it a cool reception.

"You're basically crowning a 10-race champion," said Ray Evernham, who owns the Dodges driven by Bill Elliott, Jeremy Mayfield and Kasey Kahne.

Matt Kenseth, the defending points champion, said resetting the points after 26 races and putting only five points between each of the top 10 drivers will only bring more of the conservative style of racing the changes seek to eliminate.

"There was a lot of talk about putting more of an emphasis on winning races, but I don't think this really does that," Kenseth said. "They didn't do anything to take away consistency. In fact, it's probably more about consistency now because you can just concentrate on having solid finishes and making sure you're in that top 10 for the final 10 races of the year."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. worries about how the accomplishments of future champions will stack up against those of drivers like his late father, who won seven titles under the old system.

"What is important to me is at the end of the day, if and when I win a championship, how is it going to be compared to the championships my father won?" he said.

But Richard Petty, who won seven Cup titles under several of the 11 different points systems that NASCAR has used since 1949, said changing the rules doesn't necessarily change the outcome. He said teams will adapt their strategies to meet the new procedures.

"If you're doing the job you're supposed to be doing, it doesn't matter how they add it up, you'll be the champion," Petty said.

Not necessarily. When NASCAR officials applied the new procedure to the results from the last five seasons, only 2000 champ Bobby Labonte would have still taken the title (Labonte would have won in '99; Sterling Marlin in '01; Kurt Busch in '02 and Jimmie Johnson last year).

Yet Petty saw added pressures under the new system, too.

"I'm concerned about the sponsors that don't make the top 10," Petty said. "I don't want to see a deal where a sponsor says, 'You have 26 races to prove yourself and then if you get in the top 10, we'll pay you for the next races."

Kenseth's runaway championship in 2003 is considered the impetus behind the changes. Kenseth built a big lead early, then maintained it for 33 straight weeks despite winning just one race during the season.

The biggest booster of the change is Brian France, the third-generation chief executive officer of NASCAR.

During a news conference at NASCAR's research facility on Tuesday, France confidently fielded questions about the first change in the points system since 1975.

Bill France Jr., Brian's father who retired as CEO after last season, endorsed the new plan too.

"I gave them some input, but [the change in the points system] wasn't my idea," France Jr. said. "But I endorsed it 100 percent."

Brian France said he's confident that those fans and drivers who don't like the changes will be won over.

"We know that our drivers and everybody else, when it all sinks in, when all the details are understood and as it unfolds they are going to love it," he said. "They are going to love it because drivers are going to have an opportunity to compete for a championship late in the year."

Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark, who will host one of the championship events, said he's a fan of the plan.

"Brian has taken a bold step," Clark said. "What this does is make every lap of racing those last 10 races very critical. There will be no more conservative strategy in the fall."

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I have heard that Nascar already has bigger television revenues than the NBA. An amazing rise for a sport that began as moonshiners racing their vehicles against each other when they were not being chased by the Feds.

Wow. I didn't know that. NASCAR is not that big around here...it seems that most people could care less about the sport. It seems to be a lot more popular down south though.

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