If experience counted for everything, Jeff Gordon would be a lock to win NASCAR's first 10-man, 10-race championship playoff.
The four-time series champion enters Sunday's Sylvania 300, the first event of what NASCAR has dubbed the "Chase for the Nextel Cup," as the points leader and the odds-on favorite to be on top after the season finale Nov. 21 in Homestead, Fla.
Among the other title contenders, only Matt Kenseth (2003) and Tony Stewart (2002) have won Cup championships, and Gordon's 69 race wins are far and away the most of the group, with the 34 by four-time series runner-up Mark Martin the closest among the other nine.
Winning another title to go with the championships he won in 1995, '97, '98 and '01 would mean a great deal to the 33-year-old Gordon, who has finished fourth in the standings each of the past two years.
"The last couple of years have been decent for us, but we've been missing the boat and not been in that championship battle," Gordon said. "This is very exciting and certainly an opportunity we want to take advantage of."
It won't be easy.
Under the new format, once the 10 contenders were locked in, the points were reset, with the contenders separated in increments of five points heading into Sunday's race. Gordon leads teammate Jimmie Johnson by five points and 10th-place Ryan Newman by 45.
In between are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stewart, Kenseth, Elliott Sadler, Kurt Busch, Martin and Jeremy Mayfield.
Thanks to the rain that washed out Friday's qualifying, the lineup was set by car owner points and that means the contenders will line up for the start of Sunday's race at the front of the 43-car grid.
"In a way it's kind of neat that the 10 guys in the championship will start out this thing all together," Martin said. "We've just got to hope that nobody gets too crazy out there, but I don't think that will happen. At least, not yet."
Johnson is very happy to be starting out front on the tight 1.058-mile oval.
"Track position is real important here," Johnson said. "It's a tough place to pass. Anything that can help in these last 10 races to keep your frustration level lower is a bonus.
"This track is about a groove and a half where you can really race side-by-side. If you force the issue, you've got two grooves. That raises the frustration level for your team and for the other guys. And you've got to be very clean these final 10 [races] to not get anybody mad at you to where they want to pay you back or dump you."
Johnson said he expects some of the contending teams to take a conservative strategy and others to go out aggressively -- at least for a few races.
"But I would think that regardless of wherever you are after five or six [races], it will look like a typical championship," Johnson said. "Once you get up there and you're down to the final three or four races and you're looking for points, you're going to switch to conservative mode."
Unlike some of the drivers in the top 10, Johnson and Gordon have been at or near the top of the points most of the season and have felt little pressure. That could change starting Sunday.
"Fortunately for us, we really haven't had to be very conservative to this point, so I think we'll be aggressive, and the No. 24 [Gordon] will be aggressive," Johnson said. "And I definitely think that Mark, Jeremy and Elliott have been set on kill for a few months and it's been working for them."
With rain also wiping out Saturday's scheduled Cup practice, all the teams will start the important race with a lot of question marks.
"With the rain washing the rubber off [the track] and only Friday's practice to go by, there's going to be a lot of guessing and a lot of adjusting going on early in the race," said Busch, who won the July race here despite starting 32nd.