More than any other sport, NASCAR has tweaked and adjusted and modified its rules in determining a champion. It went to its version of a playoff format for the Sprint Cup in 2004, calling it the Chase. It started out with 10 drivers and expanded to 12 in 2007.
And, before this season, NASCAR made another change to its format, having the final two spots of the Chase determined by a "wild card" format. It was the 13th change to the points system since 1949, and it seemed to be another gimmicky move to try to generate more buzz.
"The fans tell us that winning matters the most with them, so we're combining the tradition of consistency in our sport with the excitement that comes along with winning," NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said when he announced the changes. "This makes every race count leading into the 26th race of the season at Richmond, when we set the field for the Chase."
Well, it might still be gimmicky, but it's also been a touch of genius. The wild-card format has kept almost every driver in the Chase hunt. The top 10 drivers in the points standings qualify for the Chase and the final two spots are wild-card berths. Those berths go to the two drivers with the most victories, provided they are in the top 20 in the points standings. Overall points is the tie-breaker between drivers with the same number of victories.
That means somebody like Marcus Ambrose, who is 176 points behind leader (by tiebreaker) Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, can still qualify for the Chase. Ambrose earned his first career Cup victory on Monday at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and is 22nd in points. With another victory, he would likely earn a wild card, because it would be his second of the season and could push him into the top 20.
"The changes that NASCAR has put in this year for the points system and also the Chase format have been big winners for the drivers and the fans," Ambrose said. "As a driver, I'm sitting 22nd in points. I know if I go out in the last four races and win another event, I've got a chance to make the Chase. This time last year, I was pretty much done for. I was only racing for pride, so there's a lot at stake for the drivers. That means that the drivers are building to a frenzy here toward the end."
The format has also allowed drivers to overcome a couple of bad races, something that isn't too uncommon because of the number of wrecks or technical issues that take place on a given week. Last year, for instance, Jamie McMurray won three races but wasn't in the Chase.
"I don't think it's bad at all to have those wild-card spots," Tony Stewart said. "It at least gives you an opportunity to overcome those bad days."
With four races to determine the Chase field, here's a look at the drivers who appear to be locks and the ones on the bubble. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick can mathematically clinch their spots if they leave Michigan this weekend with at least a 145-point lead over the 11th place driver.
Kyle Busch: Has a Sprint Cup co-leading three victories, with 12 top-five finishes and 14 top-10 runs. Thought he had a good chance at win No. 4 Monday at Watkins Glen, but said he "gave another one away" when he got too far on the outside in the closing laps. Has never won at Michigan, but came in third there in June.
Carl Edwards: Has one victory but has been one of the most consistent drivers. Opened the season with nine top-10 finishes in the first 11 races, but is searching for his first top-five run since July 9 at the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson: There's no reason to think Johnson can't make it six season titles in a row. He is only six points back of Busch and Edwards and has top-10 finishes in four of the past five races. Of course, the five-time defending champion also knows how to close out a championship.
Kevin Harvick: Has a Sprint Cup co-leading three victories, his last one coming May 29 at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. And, although he has only one top-five finish since that victory, he trails Busch and Edwards by only 14 points.
Jeff Gordon: After going winless in 2010, the 40-year-old Gordon has had a rejuvenating season, winning twice already. He is seventh in the points standings, 52 behind Busch and Edwards. And, with his two victories, Gordon is in the wild-card hunt if he somehow drops out of the top 10 in points.
Matt Kenseth: The 2003 series champion is looking for his first title in the Chase format. With two victories, including the Samsung Mobile 500 at TMS, and 11 top-10s, he should be in contention, too. Kenseth could make up some ground this weekend, as he has two career victories at Michigan.
Kurt Busch: It's been seven years since Busch won the championship in 2004, the inaugural year of the Chase. But he should challenge his brother and others for it this year, with one victory and 12 top-10 finishes.
Ryan Newman: A fairly steady year has put him in the middle of the Chase, although he might not be a strong championship contender yet. He has come on strong of late, though, with three top-five finishes in the past five races, including a victory on July 17 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
On the bubble
Brad Keselowski: Injuries couldn't slow down Keselowski the past two weeks, as he won at Pocono two weeks ago and then finished second at Watkins Glen. With two victories, Keselowski has virtually secured one of the wild-card spots, since he's 14th in the points standings.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: One of only two drivers in the top 10 without a victory, Earnhardt will have to do well down the stretch to hold onto his Chase spot. Earnhardt hasn't had a top-five finish since June 5 at the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway, although things could change this week at Michigan where he has one career victory.
Tony Stewart: Along with Earnhardt, the only other driver in the top 10 without a victory this season. Earlier this week, Stewart said it would take a "miracle" for his team to remain in the Chase, especially after a late wreck dropped him to a 27th-place finish at Watkins Glen.
Clint Bowyer: Another winless driver in Chase contention, Bowyer is sitting in 11th place, a mere 25 points behind Stewart. But Bowyer hasn't done himself any favors, finishing outside of the top-10 the past six races.
Denny Hamlin: If the season ended today, Hamlin would be one of the wild cards. He has the most points out of the one-victory group and is 12th in the points standings. Hamlin could solidify his chances this weekend at Michigan, where he has won the past two races.
Greg Biffle: With no victories and 13th in the points standings, Biffle faces an uphill struggle to make the Chase for the fourth consecutive season. He has only one top-five and has finished 18th or worse in five of the last seven races.
Marcus Ambrose: Was a Chase afterthought until he earned his first career victory Monday. Now, with one more victory in the final four races, Ambrose -- 22nd in points -- would likely make an unforeseen run into the Chase.
Paul Menard: Similar to Ambrose, has Chase life after earning his first career victory on July 31 at the Brickyard 400. Has finished 10th and 32nd since his career-changing victory but finished fourth at Michigan earlier this year.
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760