Points No Problem
July 22, 2004 | 2:45 P.M. EST
No, that's not a new competition just added to the 2004 Olympic Games set to begin in Athens, Greece, on August 13. And no, that is not the name of a hot new bluegrass band hailing from Eastaboga, Ala.
Instead, that is what Miller Lite Dodge driver Rusty Wallace replied when asked what his current points deficit to NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings leader Jimmy Johnson meant.
"With the new points system, the difference between us and first means diddly-squat," said Wallace, as his team was preparing for this weekend's Siemens 300 on the 1.058-mile New Hampshire International Speedway. "But, the difference to 10th-place in the standings means everything in the world to us."
Under this year's new point system, after the first 26 races, all drivers in the NASCAR Top 10 and any others within 400 points of the leader will earn a berth in the "Chase for the Championship." All drivers in the "chase" will have their point totals adjusted. The first-place driver in the standings will begin the chase with 5,050 points; the second-place driver will start with 5,045, etc. Incremental five-point drops will continue through the list of title contenders.
Wallace, winner of the inaugural NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race at NHIS back in 1993, currently is 17th in the point standings entering this weekend. He is 208 points behind Penske teammate Ryan Newman, who holds down the 10th spot.
"We're coming into Loudon (NHIS) looking at the big picture and focused on getting all we can out of it," said Wallace, whose track record boasts the one win, six top-fives, 11 top-10s and two poles in the 18 races held there to date. "We're heading into all of the upcoming races concentrating on winning, but looking at really making up the lost ground at the end of the day.
"We probably had a little different perception about that 11th-place finish we had at Chicago the last time out," said Wallace, who finished 11th in the July 11 Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. "First of all, it was the best finish we've ever had at that track. Second, it was our best finish in two months (since finishing 10th at Lowe's Motor Speedway on May 30), so we know we're headed back in the right direction. But most important is the fact that we shaved off more than 50 points in our move to get back up there in the top 10. (Wallace was 260 points out of 10th entering the Chicago race.)
"We don't expect to make up that much ground every week between now and Richmond, and with eight races to go until then (through the Sept. 11 Richmond race) we don't have to," offered Wallace. "But when you look at the races we have coming up, there are definitely some that offer great potential for us. We've had success at all the tracks coming up, but when you consider places like Watkins Glen, Bristol and a few others, those are tracks where there could likely be big swings as far as the points go.
"We just have to go into each week from here on out and get everything we can out of them. We can't afford to shoot ourselves in the foot again like we have, that's for sure. It's no good to dwell on the past, but that deal at Sears Point (Infineon Raceway) keeps on coming back to haunt me. We had fourth-place wrapped up and ran out of gas (finishing 28th). They said we lost 82 points right there on that one lap. We'd be about three spots further up (in the standings) and only 125 (actually 126 points) out of the top 10, if not for that. But that's behind us now and we can't change what happened. We just have to learn from it and not make any more mistakes."
Wallace is confident that his Larry Carter-led Miller Lite-sponsored team can make up additional ground this weekend at New Hampshire.
"They added the soft walls last year and the Bahre Family continues to make improvements there," said Wallace, who will be racing his "57 car" this weekend at NHIS. The car debuted in the May race last year at Richmond and Wallace finished 10th, even after an early race altercation. Wallace raced it only one other time since - last September at NHIS. "I still don't think they'll have a great track until they put some banking in the turns. I've probably been too vocal in the past, so that's all I'll say about that. Anyhow, we've had a lot of good runs at Loudon and we hope to keep up that pace there this weekend. In the last race there last fall, we had a great car. We were supposed to start 11th, but we lost an engine and had to start from the rear. We had to come from 43rd and got up to finish sixth, so we had a super car that day. We're bringing back that same car, so we know we can be as strong as anything out there. As always, with it being so difficult to pass on that layout, the track position situation will be a chief factor in who wins the race. We hope we can run strong and make all the right calls to be there battling for the win at the end."
Qualifying to set the 43-car field is set for Friday at 3:05 p.m. The Siemens 300, the 19th of the 36 events on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup tour, will take the green flag on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. EDT. The 300-lap, 317.4-mile race will air live on TNT-TV and MRN Radio will provide live radio coverage.