LOUDON, N.H. (AP) _ Nervous energy has been common in recent weeks for some NASCAR drivers hoping to get into the new 10-man, 10-race playoff for the Nextel Cup championship. Now that the playoff is finally here _ starting Sunday with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway _ after seven months and 26 races, the drivers who made the cut figure the worst is behind them.
Others will try to salvage a respectable season and collect the $1 million payoff that goes to the driver who finishes 11th.
``It's kind of a relief to be done with that and be ready to race for a championship,'' four-time series runner-up Mark Martin said. ``I've never been through anything as agonizing as these last few weeks trying to make sure we got into this thing.''
Jeremy Mayfield, who won last Saturday night in Richmond, was the only driver to bump his way into the top 10 in his final opportunity.
``Going to Richmond, we knew it would take a special race to get into the top 10,'' Mayfield said. ``Now we're in and we're ready to get after it at Loudon. We're pumped up about it.''
Under the new format, the points have been reset with drivers in the top 10 separated by increments of five points and series leader Jeff Gordon just 45 in front of 10th-place Ryan Newman.
In between are Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, reigning series champion Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler, Kurt Busch, Martin and Mayfield.
All are veterans of at least three years in NASCAR's top series and three of them _ Gordon, Stewart and Kenseth _ have won championships.
``We've got to go about it like we have the past five years this team has been in existence, and that's to take it one race at a time,'' said 2002 champ Stewart. ``These next 10 races are the same 10 races we had last year. You go to the track, you race, and you get points for it. Wherever we are at the end of these 10 races is where we are.
``That's how we won a championship in 2002 and that's how we're going about it this year. It's still about racing and which team consistently does the best job. So, in my opinion, not a whole lot has changed.''
Stewart does agree, though, that the new points system _ replacing the format that had been in place since 1975 _ is doing what it was intended to do.
``I'd never seen as much excitement surrounding the fall Richmond race as I did this past weekend,'' he said. ``As far as going up against football, I never really paid too much attention to how many people watched what on television. But if we put on good races and more people are watching because of the Chase, then it's tough to argue that it's not working.''
The champion will take home at least $5 million, while the other nine drivers in the title battle are guaranteed at least $1 million apiece.
But there is still plenty for the drivers who missed out on making the top 10.
For each of the final 10 races there will continue to be a full 43-car field, and a victory by a non-contender would still give that driver and team a big boost.
Then there is the 11th-place bonus.
Jamie McMurray, who missed out on the top 10 by 15 points, has his sights set on that prize.
``Just because we're not in the top 10 doesn't mean we're just going to ride around these last 10 races,'' last year's top rookie said. ``Our goals now are to win races and hold down 11th place in points. If we can do that, then I feel like we can look back on not making the playoffs and still feel like we've had a successful season.''