Like most NASCAR drivers, Matt Kenseth has spent months insisting that the new Nextel Cup championship format has not altered his driving style or his race strategy. Yesterday, though, he acknowledged one potentially significant change.

With his spot in the 10-race playoffs virtually ensured for weeks, Kenseth was able to reserve most of his nine allotted testing sessions for the end of the season. The defending Cup champion was thus at Dover International Speedway yesterday to prepare for the Sept. 26 MBNA America 400.

Kenseth, currently fifth in points, was joined by current points leader Jeff Gordon and third-place driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., although an afternoon storm chased them from the track for several hours.

Kenseth said he will test at six of the final 10 tracks, including Dover. Gordon will practice at five of the tracks and Earnhardt at four. Drivers who were competing for the last few playoff spots, on the other hand, used up crucial testing sessions over the past few weeks. The final three qualifiers -- Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield and Ryan Newman -- all used a testing session at Richmond, the site of last weekend's regular season finale.

The advantages, though, are sometimes murky.

"Sometimes you learn a lot and it really helps you in the race, and sometimes you think you learned a lot and you come back and the track's different and you didn't really learn a lot," Kenseth said yesterday. "And sometimes you come and don't figure anything out."

While a weary Earnhardt said yesterday he wished NASCAR would do away with testing sessions altogether "because it sucks," Gordon crew chief Robbie Loomis was happy to search for any insights.

"With a driver as great as Jeff is . . . it really pays off big dividends for us when we come back to the race," said Loomis, who pointed out that Gordon won last month's Brickyard 400 after testing at Indianapolis.

-- Dan Steinberg