July 1, 2004 at 9:30 PM EST - Updated June 28 at 10:34 AM
Even from his perch atop the points standings, Jimmie Johnson hasn't wavered in his dislike for NASCAR's new championship system.
Johnson heads into the Pepsi 400 on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway with a 27-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr., an advantage that doesn't mean as much as it used to.
Under NASCAR's new formula, all drivers in the top 10 in the standings and anyone within 400-points of the leader will start over after the 26th race of the year. Those drivers will then compete in a 10-race shootout to crown the champion.
"I don't feel it really represents what a true champion needs to do in the course of a year,'' Johnson said. "Our sport is founded on long races and a long season. I think our point system should reflect that.''
Johnson believes NASCAR created the new system to add a bit of drama to what had become ho-hum points races over the final stretch of the season.
"It has a lot of entertainment value, but when you're a competitor looking to find an advantage and working the sport year 'round, I don't think this point system really reflects what we have to do week in and week out,'' he said.
The push for the championship chase begins with the Pepsi 400, the first of the final 10 races before NASCAR sets the field for the "playoff.''
Heading into Saturday night, at least a dozen drivers were in position to make the cut. Several others were on the fringe -- reaching all the way back to 19th-place Sterling Marlin, who was 688 points back. A few good finishes could loft even Marlin into the 400-point range.
NASCAR chairman Brian France thinks that's the beauty of the new system. Once the points reset for the final 10 races, drivers who normally would have zero chance at winning the championship are now contenders.
"You're seeing drivers that were out of it in previous years that are not out of it today,'' France said. "So it's going to be what we all hoped for, a lot more excitement a lot more drama, a lot more fan bases energized as a result of the system. And frankly, the competition has heated up.''
Even France acknowledges the next 10 races are going to be extremely competitive as drivers attempt to get into the 400-point range.
"You see the urgency that the drivers have today that maybe they would not have had under the old system,'' France said.
Johnson has been fairly consistent in his five previous Daytona starts -- three top 10s, and his lowest finish was 18th in this race last year. But he knows everyone behind him is coming after him, and the high-speeds at Daytona's 2.5-mile superspeedway are sure to make things a little dicey.
"There is so much on the line to be in that 400-point cut, I would expect to see some crazy things happening,'' he said. "After this weekend, we'll all have a pretty good idea of how things will lay out and who's in contention and who needs to be desperate.''
Earnhardt, who won this event in 2001 and captured the season-opening Daytona 500 this year, will not be one of the desperate drivers. He's been a firm fixture at or near the top of the standings all season, and that's not expected to change after Saturday night.
He's got nine wins in 27 starts at Daytona in various series and has finished seventh or better in the last three Pepsi 400s. Earnhardt, who has seemed to master the restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega, is ready to race for another win.
"Daytona rewards a good handling car,'' he said. "Look at how the 500 developed -- it was more spread out than in the past because good handling cars were able to pull away from the pack. I think you'll see more of that this weekend.''
Michael Waltrip, Earnhardt's teammate at Dale Earnhardt Inc., is expected to be among the top contenders. Waltrip has won three of the last seven races at Daytona and his team headed into the Pepsi 400 on a roll -- he posted five top-10 finishes in his last 10 races to climb from 30th to 18th in the standings.
But Waltrip knows how quickly things can go wrong at Daytona: He was in a frightening wreck in the season-opener, flipping his car at least three times and finishing 38th.
"There's a lot of pressure you put on yourself to make sure you don't make any mistakes and you make all the right moves,'' he said. "One wrong drafting move late in the race can take you from the top two or three cars to 20th. You can't recover from that. You just have to be smart and not make any mistakes.''
And don't count out Jeff Gordon, Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.
Gordon is coming off last weekend's dominating victory on the road course in California, and a win Saturday night would give him back-to-back victories for the 20th time in his career.
But Gordon already scored a restrictor-plate win this year at Talladega, and he's never won two plate races in the same year. Still, he thinks the Hendrick fleet should give the DEI cars some competition.
"We're making gains in our plate program,'' he said, "and hopefully we'll be challenging for the win at the end of the race.''