Ryan Newman's two NASCAR victories at Dover (Del.) International Speedway last year contained more than a trifle of symmetry. Newman's average speeds at the two events -- held in June and September -- were within 2 mph of each other. Both times, Newman trailed for most of the race before retaking a lead in the final 75 miles. Both times, he followed the win with a top-five finish the following week.
But most importantly, neither victory did appreciably more than the other for Newman's chances at a Cup championship.
That final item would be impossible to replicate this season. Today's 400-mile race at Dover's Monster Mile marks the midway point of NASCAR's first "regular season" and will count for no more than last week's Coca-Cola 600 or next week's Pocono 500.
By the time the stock-car series returns to Delaware in September, the Nextel Cup field will have been officially winnowed to about a dozen drivers. That Dover race -- the second stage of a 10-race Cup "playoff" -- will almost certainly play a crucial role in reordering the remaining competitors.
The top 10 drivers in the Cup standings, plus anyone within 400 points of the leader, will remain in contention following Richmond's Chevy Monte Carlo 400 on Sept. 11. Twelve drivers would qualify entering today's race. Fan favorites such as Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip -- plus today's pole sitter, Jeremy Mayfield -- would be left out, although they could still enter and win races.
Ironically, some have suggested that a system motivated in part by Matt Kenseth's Cup triumph despite only one race victory last season may encourage conservative track strategy, as drivers attempt to remain above the cut-off point. Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, said as much last weekend, explaining that the new system seems to reward consistent top 10 finishes more than gambling for victories.
But Johnson went on to win last week's race -- saying he wasn't thinking about the Cup standings during a late move to the front -- and other drivers have sounded a similar note.
"I believe I speak for all racecar drivers when I say this: What motivates you as an athlete is winning races," Ricky Craven said. "The championship, no question, is the ultimate, but I don't think it overrides or overrules the weekly objective of winning that race."
Several veteran drivers were initially skeptical of the scoring change, fearing it would disrupt a successful system and alienate longtime fans."It was a change, and maybe we weren't ready for a change," said 2000 Cup champion Bobby Labonte, currently sixth in points. "But at the same time, once we got over the initial shock and change of it -- no different than a lot of things that happen in your life -- you're like 'Well, what the hell, no big deal.' "
In any case, television ratings for the sport continue to rise. Ratings for the Coca-Cola 600 topped those of the Indianapolis 500 for the third straight year, and NASCAR's network telecasts have drawn a 6.3 rating this year, up from 6.1 last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 telecast averaged 8.4 million viewers, more than four times as many as Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals the previous night.
NASCAR officials said it was too early to pass judgment on the new scoring system, with television consultant Neal Pilson saying only that Cup officials are "hoping for an uptick" in ratings this fall.
And Labonte said the entire series is waiting to see how the system is received by the public.
"My standard answer is: We'll be smarter next year than we are this year," Labonte said. "We just know that by race 26 we want to be in the top 10 in points, and we've got to work real hard to do that."