This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 14, 2011 College Basketball Preview.
"Hang on for a second," Carl Edwards said as he climbed from his car moments after the checkered flag at Talladega on Oct. 23. Edwards had finished 11th, and he immediately looked skyward to the scoring pylon that towers over the garage and did some quick calculations in his head. "I was just figuring out if I'm still the points leader," he said. "I am, but these days you never know. That's what makes this year's Chase so fun." He paused to wipe his sweat-soaked face with a towel before adding, "And that's also what makes it so damn stressful."
For the second consecutive season, NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup has kept fans in suspense all the way through the 10-race de facto postseason. But this year has felt more tense than any of the previous seven editions. According to drivers, it has everything to do with participants and points.
Nearly every fan can find someone to root for in the star-studded lineup. The 12-man field has combined to win 13 championships (20 if you include Nationwide Series titles) and nearly 350 races. It includes three multiple-time champions, all four car manufacturers and all five superpower teams: Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. Their combined stables create a nice mix of veterans, young guns and NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"After the Chase cutoff race at Richmond, we were all posing onstage for photos," says Brad Keselowski, "and I remember looking around and thinking, Damn, these are some studs up here. Then I thought, I can beat these guys. And you know what? They were all up there thinking the same thing."
Keselowski is in his first Chase thanks to the revamped points system, which is another reason for all the excitement. Keselowski and Denny Hamlin made the field via the new wild-card spots, awarded to the two drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins. In the past, the drivers who sneaked into the final two Chase spots had mostly vanished once the postseason started. But Keselowski, who won two of the final six regular-season races, is a legitimate title threat. "Last year felt odd that Jamie McMurray wasn't in it," says Jimmie Johnson, referring to the absence of the 2010 Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 champion who missed the top 12 by two spots. "This year would have felt the same had Brad not made it in. Being in the Chase and winning a championship should be about winning."
That's the idea behind NASCAR's streamlined points scale. Instead of a confusing stair-step scale through the finishing order, every position on the track is now worth one point. Need to make up five points on a competitor? Pass five cars. Led a lap? Add one more point. It's simple math. "If I come into a race three points behind someone, when it's over I can see where he finished and where I finished, and even I can figure it out," says Kevin Harvick, who's in his fifth Chase. "In the past, we'd have a guy in the pits doing all the hard math."
The new system also allows drivers to dig out of holes the old-fashioned way -- by winning races. Aside from laps led, the only driver who receives a bonus points bump on the new scale is the winner. And the one-point increments mean that bad days are much costlier than in the past. "I would describe it as slippery," says Kurt Busch, who in 2004 won the inaugural Chase. "One mistake, one wrong move, and it just kills you. On the flip side, if the guys you're chasing have a bad day, then you can make up that ground. But you have to win races to do it. If you stroke, if you points race, then you're just going to sit there. You have to win."
NASCAR chairman Brian France promised as much when he unveiled the format in January. "Fans want to see winning, and they want to see winners fighting for the title," he said. "I think we'll give them that."
The formula is working, with an assist from a pack of racing superstars. "If you're going to win the championship, you want to do it racing the best in the business all the way to the wire," says Edwards. "This year's champ will have done that. I just hope it's me."