When the new format for determining the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series champion was first unveiled, dire predictions of uninhibited, hard-core and even -- gasp! -- dirty racing accompanied the announcement.

Upon further review . . .

"We keep getting the question every week, 'What are you gonna do this week to try to get yourself in the top 10?' " said Dale Jarrett, the 1999 champion who ranks 14th with three races to go before the cutoff. "I promise you, we're doing everything we possibly can.

"[But] I think everybody is trying to make it like we're going to Bristol and gonna go to Richmond and hunt down whoever is ahead of us and take them out. Well, if that's the way I have to get in the top 10, then I'll quit."

Under the system, the top 10 drivers in the standings and any others within 400 points of the leader after 26 races will have their points adjusted in increments of five. Those contenders all will have a good shot at the $5.3 million top prize in the final 10 events.

With night races remaining in Bristol, Tenn., Fontana., Calif., and Richmond before the cutoff, just 110 points separate eighth-place Kevin Harvick from 15th-place Jamie McMurray.

Rookie Kasey Kahne, who displaced teammate Jeremy Mayfield for the 10th spot when he finished fifth last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, doesn't have the points-racing experience of Jarrett, but he seconded the veteran's point.

"I still feel bad about some of the situations," he said, referring to accidents he had earlier this season that took out other drivers. "If you do hit somebody now -- and it happens -- they're going to say it's because of the points and stuff."

Now, having said that, expect some fireworks over the next couple of weeks.

Racing on the high-speed half-mile in Bristol looks a lot like a blender. There will be wrecks. And every time NASCAR goes to the three-quarter-mile oval in Richmond, the full moon seems to come out.

"It may come that the guys in eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th all end up in the same accident or are banging on each other," Jarrett said. "But it's not gonna be because of the point system, it's just because of the nature of the racetrack and how close the competition is."

They're Serious This Time

Sometime this season -- we must have been dozing -- the title of the don't-call-it-a-playoff system morphed from the "Nextel Cup Series Chase for the Championship" to the "Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup," NASCAR folks respectfully point out.

So now you know. . . .

Regardless of Rusty Wallace's non-denial denial last week, you can count on his announcement of a 2005 farewell tour -- "Last Call" or whatever it'll be named -- come Monday. He has scheduled a news conference called for Daytona International Speedway, and Speed Channel plans to carry it live, beginning at 10 a.m.

Now, before you brand Wallace as a liar, you need to look closely at his words last week. He never actually said he wouldn't retire after next year, and trust us, when Wallace said he'd race "a couple more years," he meant the rest of 2004 and all of 2005. . . .

Considering the site of Wallace's announcement -- essentially the headquarters of NASCAR and the International Speedway Corp. -- speculation has surfaced that the face of souvenir merchandising might change. The key word at this point remains speculation, but it has been suggested that the souvenir rigs parked outside tracks could be replaced by stores operated by ISC and the other large track operator, Speedway Motorsports.

Quick Pits

Team Rensi and driver Bobby Hamilton Jr. have split, purportedly to allow Hamilton to prepare for his move from the Busch Series to Nextel Cup next year. Jeff Green is to drive for the rest of the season. . . .

Bobby Wilson of Oconomowoc, Wis., won the Formula Ford Zetec Championship by winning Round 16 Sunday at Road America. . . .

When Jimmy Vasser takes the green flag today in the Molson Indy Montreal, his 193rd consecutive start will move him past Al Unser Jr. for the all-time Champ Car record.

Dale Jarrett, preparing for the Pennsylvania 500 earlier this month, vowed that he won't drive dirty in order to claim a top 10 spot in the points standings.