Jamie McMurray took one look at the assembled crowd -- about five dozen journalists, a bank of television cameras and a roaming gang of still photographers -- and reconsidered his wardrobe.
"I should have worn a sponsor shirt," muttered McMurray, an unassuming second-year driver currently 11th in NASCAR's points standings.
That McMurray showed up for Friday's news conference in jeans and an astonishingly plain white T-shirt -- a true NASCAR rarity -- could perhaps be forgiven. Rarely, if ever, had such a mob demanded face time with a mild-mannered, mid-level driver in early September, two months from the end of NASCAR's season.
The glut of questions for McMurray and four of his fellow drivers -- a group ranked 10th through 14th in the points standings -- was just what NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France had in mind when he announced a new championship format last winter, shortly after taking the reins of the organizing body from his father. Under France's system, the first 26 races serve as something of a regular season, with at least 10 drivers then qualifying for a championship showdown over the final 10 races.
The announcement prompted outrage from some longtime fans and scorn from much of the garage, but as the race to qualify tightened leading up to Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 -- the 26th race -- the tide seems to have turned in France's favor.
Eight drivers are jumbled around the cutoff point, separated by a combined 76 points, a gap that could be erased by one trip to Victory Lane. (The difference between a first place and 20th place finish, for example, is worth 77 points).
Mark Martin (10th place) and McMurray have reversed their original objections, and Dale Jarrett -- another onetime critic -- acknowledged the most obvious advantage of the new format.
"The biggest thing is, what were we trying to accomplish?" said Jarrett, a former champion currently 13th. "I think it was to create more excitement around this time of year. . . . They've certainly done that."
Such changing views have clearly pleased Brian France, who said Friday that the format will not reach "ultimate traction" with fans for another three or four years.
"When you change a big, traditional issue like the way you crown your champion, [criticism] goes with the territory," he said. "There's no question that the racing action is better, there's more at stake, more drivers are having an opportunity to win the championship late in the year than ever before and that's what we hoped for."
But at least one critique -- that the system unfairly penalizes early success -- is still voiced in the garage.
Points leader Jimmie Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon, for example, have been the dominant drivers this year. But after Saturday night's race, the second-place driver will be moved within five points of the leader, with the rest of the top 10 separated by five-point increments.
"If I've got a 400-point lead going into the 27th race, then don't drop me down to five if I've earned that," said Ryan Newman, shortly before earning the pole with a lap of 128.700 mph. "I don't think it's an ideal point system for every competitor, and I think the point system should be ideal for every competitor."
Five drivers -- Johnson, Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth -- have already clinched spots in the top 10. Elliott Sadler needs only to start Saturday's race to earn a top-10 position, and Kurt Busch can get in by finishing anywhere but last.
A provision granting additional berths to any driver within 400 points of the leader has also come into play after Johnson's recent struggles.
If he were to crash or finish poorly, up to 15 drivers could theoretically qualify for the championship derby, a development that has spawned questions about Johnson being intentionally wrecked Saturday. After some good-natured kidding, that possibility was rejected by Johnson and those chasing him.
"I think our sport polices itself," Johnson said. "And if somebody takes it into their own hands to guarantee themselves a spot in the championship, not only will NASCAR address it, but I think our sport has a funny way of working itself out."
The driving, though, is expected to be aggressive -- "we gotta run like there's no tomorrow," 14th-place driver Jeremy Mayfield said -- on a three-quarter-mile track that often fosters bumping and jostling.
Several of the contenders have insisted that they feel no pressure, that Saturday night will be "just another race," as Martin put it. But McMurray, 28 years old and oozing honesty, was having none of it.
"I'm pretty young, I've never really had any stress in my life," he said as his fellow contenders broke up laughing. "The last sleepless nights I've had were when I was so excited to get this ride. Now, it's all about laying there at night and hoping you can make it in."