BROOKLYN, Mich. - Elliott Sadler never used to think about points racing. The only thing that mattered was winning; anything else was just another loss.
Now that he's one of 10 drivers fighting for the final five spots in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series standings, he now appreciates the value of every finishing position.
"I'm probably the worst points racer there is," he said. "I really pay attention to it a lot. Every Sunday night, Monday morning after the race, I know exactly how many I'm behind the next guy, how many positions I need to finish in front of him. I do all the math."
There will be a lot of number-crunching going on in the next four races, starting with this Sunday's GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Drivers who are ranked among the top 10 after the next four races automatically qualify to compete for the series championship in the final 10 races.
The top five drivers in the rankings - Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth - are virtual locks to be part of the made-for-television Chase for the Championship when it starts Sept. 19 at New Hampshire International Speedway.
The final five spots are a toss-up between the five who currently are 6th through 10th - Sadler, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte and Jeremy Mayfield - and the drivers ranked 11th-15th - Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and Jamie McMurray.
Although he's in 15th place, McMurray is only 99 points from Mayfield's 10th-place spot in the rankings, and the separation between sixth and 15th is just 223 points. All 10 know, a flat tire or a bad pit stop can shake up the standings again.
Last week at Watkins Glen, N.Y., Mayfield jumped two spots to 10th by finishing seventh on the road course. At the same time, Newman dropped two spots to 12th by finishing 26th with a braking problem.
"That's what we've got to do to stay in the top 10," Mayfield said. "We're 10th now, and we've got to maintain that. We're not going to look behind us. We're just going to look ahead."
Mayfield should worry. He's just 24 points ahead Kahne, his teammate at Evernham Motorsports, 29 points ahead of 12th-place Newman, 72 points ahead of Martin and 87 points ahead of Jarrett.
"We've got to finish in the top five in the next (four) races. I think we're capable of it. I think we should, and I think we might," Newman said.
So many drivers have a chance to compete for the championship - compared to a year ago when Kenseth had a seemingly insurmountable 258-point lead after 22 races - is one reason why Mayfield liked the new championship format from the start. The fact he's one of the key players in the "race to the chase" makes it even better.
"When NASCAR first came out with that, I thought it was pretty neat because, you know, I'm sitting here going, 'We're 19th in points and we don't know how it's going to work out.' Who knows how it's going to work out?" he said. "I was all for it. I mean, just because every once in a while it doesn't hurt to have change. I love it. I think it's going to really add a lot more excitement in the last 10 races for sure, and I think it's going to take a guy like me, who's able to get back into the top 10, and be there in the end and give us a chance to win the championship. I think it's great."
Opponents of the new system point out that of the 15 drivers fighting for the 10 qualifying spots for the championship, six, including Mayfield, have yet to win a race.
"I'm sure Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are guys that won't (agree with the new system), but we all knew going in what it was going to be," Mayfield said of the top-two ranked drivers who've combined for nine wins.
Jarrett was an outspoken critic of the new system, but now that he's worked his way into contention without benefit of a victory, he's warming to the idea of pushing his way into the top 10.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.