Two years ago this week, Matt Kenseth was sitting pretty.
Kenseth headed into the 26th race of the 2003 season, the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway, leading what was then the Winston Cup Series by a healthy 389 points over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
A seventh-place run at Richmond raised that margin to 418 points and Kenseth was able to cruise through the final 10 races to the championship of NASCAR's top stock car series.
Even though Jimmie Johnson came on strong and managed to cut the final deficit to 90 points, it was a pretty ho-hum title run, giving fans good reason to watch the NFL or the baseball playoffs and World Series instead of NASCAR in the waning weeks of the season.
That fact was not lost on new NASCAR chairman Brian France, who chafed at seeing his sport losing attention at a time of year when it should be at its most exciting. He and his brain trust in Daytona Beach, Fla., came up with a radical new point system, breaking the season into two parts.
Many of the sport's tradition-loving grass-roots fans hated last year's inaugural Chase for the championship, calling it contrived and artificial.
Forget it. The new system works.
The way it breaks down, the top 10 drivers and any others within 400 points of the leader after the first 26 races have their points reset to put them well ahead of the rest of the field and separated by increments of just five points. They then get to race each other for the championship over the final 10 races, while the rest of the competitors simply fill out the 43-car fields and finish out the season.
In the first two races to the Chase, the only part of France's plan that has not worked is the 400 points.
The competition came down to 11 drivers last year at Richmond, with Jamie McMurray finishing ninth in the race but winding up 11th in the points, 431 behind leader Jeff Gordon and 15 behind 10th-place Ryan Newman -- a double whammy.
Heading into Saturday night's race on Richmond's .75-mile oval, there were five drivers battling for the final two spots in the top 10, with Kenseth, McMurray, Ryan Newman, Gordon and Elliott Sadler separated by just 62 points. But 11th-place Newman trailed Tony Stewart by 642 points.
Although France did say that NASCAR assesses everything involved in the Cup championship after each season, no changes are likely. Why fix something that is definitely not broken?
"We studied past years and found that no driver ranked outside the top 10 with 10 races to go had ever won the championship and that there have only been a couple of years when more than 10 drivers were separated by fewer than 400 points with 10 to go," France said. "That's fine. We want the drivers who earn their positions in the Chase to battle for the title."
If this year's playoff -- a term that is apt for the 10-race shootout, but one NASCAR does not particularly like -- is anything like last year, there's little doubt the crowds will turn out and the TV numbers will continue to shine.
The battle went down to the final race at Homestead last November, with five of the 10 finalists still with at least a mathematical chance at the championship heading into the 36th race of the year.
In the end, after a wild finishing race, Kurt Busch beat Johnson by eight points -- the closest championship in NASCAR history -- and Gordon finished third, just 16 points behind Busch.
No changes necessary.
Finishing Strong Is Key
Failing to earn a spot in the Chase is not the total disaster that some critics forecast when the new points system was announced.
Drivers not among the 10 racing for the title still can win races and work on preparing for the future.
"We still want to finish as high in the standings as we can, while continuing to build for next year," explained Brian Vickers, who had finished in the top 10 in four of his last five races and went into the Richmond race 17th in the points. "We're not going to have a go-for-broke approach to the remaining races because it's important we continue building momentum and establishing consistency for 2006.
"That's not to say we won't try something different a time or two, but our focus remains on finishing this season as strong as we can."
Young Gun Again
Talk about a precocious driver.
Kyle Busch became the youngest race winner in the history of NASCAR's premier Cup circuit last Sunday night at California Speedway. But that's just the latest first for the 20-year-old from Las Vegas.
He is also the youngest driver to win a Cup pole, the youngest to win a Craftsman Truck Series race and the youngest to earn Rookie of the Year honors in the Busch Series. If he goes on to win the rookie title this year in Cup, he also would become the youngest driver to accomplish that feat.
Stat of the Week
There were eight different winners in the last eight races at Richmond heading into Saturday night. Kasey Kahne won from the pole in May. Before that, the previous seven races were won by Jeremy Mayfield, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Joe Nemechek, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Ricky Rudd.
Native Virginian Rudd started the string of different winners after Stewart, who went into Saturday's race with 11 consecutive finishes of eighth or better, won the first race at Richmond in 2001.