Bubble drivers may try anything

Ten Nextel Cup drivers will leave Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 11 with championship hopes. For many of those 10, hope will be renewed as the points will be redistributed and the gap between first and 10th shortened.

NASCAR made the change to restore excitement late in the season, when it's not uncommon for some fans to lose interest because the Cup leader has such a large points lead.

It remains to be seen how fans warm up to the "Championship Chase," but with nine races remaining before the cut-off after Richmond, NASCAR's gamble will begin to take shape immediately. The drivers are already bracing for wild action.

"There are only nine races left before the cut off for the championship," Dodge driver Casey Mears said. "Every race now is crucial."

Only drivers among the top 10 in points, as well as anyone within 400 points of the leader, will be eligible for the 2004 title. That leaves guys like Kasey Kahne, Jeremy Mayfield and Jamie McMurray eager to make moves, hoping to displace those precariously in the top 10 such as Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman.

But it also leaves Harvick and Newman concerned that aggressive driving could wreck a season for them.

"You hope nobody does anything stupid," Newman said. "But it's a big deal to get into the top 10 now. Guys are going to be thinking about it."

Rookie Kahne sure is. And he knows he's not the only one.

"There's definitely going to be more and more pressure as the season
goes on," Kahne said. "It's going to create some pretty wild, crazy racing. I imagine some stuff is going to be going on in the next few races you wouldn't normally see this early in the season. I'd say there might be some (desperate moves) going on."

Of course, not everyone is buying into that. Chevy driver Tony Stewart said he isn't treating this season differently from any other. The 2002 champ believes those who try to change might sabotage themselves.

"We take each race one week at a time just like we've done every other season," Stewart said. "You can't be worrying about the points. If you do your job each week and try to win the race, it's like I've always said, the points will take care of themselves -- no matter what the format is.

"If you change what you're doing just to adjust to the new points system,
I think you're going to run into trouble. If you always try to win, then
that means you're always trying to get as many points as possible. I
don't know why anyone would go away from that."

It's easy for Stewart to take a more relaxed approach, though. At fourth in the points standings, he's pretty squarely in the running for his second title.

While those inside or just outside the top 10 bubble fight it out savagely, Stewart, leader Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and defending champ Matt Kenseth all are calmly preparing for the final 10 races as they are pretty much assured a shot to race for the title.

Although Kenseth says he wasn't waiting for these next nine races to start prepping for the final 10 events. He started a long time ago.

"We started thinking about the last 10 races the day the point system
was announced, honestly," he said. "We've sort of done some preparation. We're trying to design some new stuff on our chassis and some new stuff on our bodies -- some testing and starting to get ready to know what we want to build for the last 10."

The stakes are high. Especially for those on the bubble. And that's what NASCAR wanted. Over the next nine races, the prelude to the chase for the championship ensues. A cast of half a dozen drivers will stage a contest for a berth into the first-ever NASCAR playoffs.

The drivers are bracing themselves, and suggest you do the same.

"It's going to be exciting," Dodge driver Kyle Petty said. "I'd be more excited if we were in it, but I'm excited to see it."

Said Ford driver Elliott Sadler: "This point chase has added a whole different strategy to the way everyone is racing. You have to race smart and you have to be aware of who is around you. It seems like the same guys are up there week in and week out and last weekend showed what happens when you miss it a little like we did."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.