LOUDON, N.H. — Call it the calm before the storm, that quiet time before the Chase for the championship officially begins and NASCAR's 10 title contenders are one big happy group — best friends forever.

Those 10 drivers are fresh off a festive swing through New York City, where their status as Nextel Cup contenders was feted everywhere they turned. They sat together on shuttle buses, shared strategies over a steak dinner and laughed as a group during their appearance with David Letterman.

"It's the calmest, nicest I've ever seen these guys," Kasey Kahne revealed. "It was weird. We had a good time in New York and everyone was calm and happy. This weekend could explode. Who knows?"

It's a good bet that it will by the time the checkered flag falls on Sunday's race at New Hampshire International Speedway. In the first two years of NASCAR's championship-crowning creation, Round 1 of the Chase has collected its share of contenders.

Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Jeremy Mayfield all had their title hopes crushed when they were collateral damage in Robby Gordon and Greg Biffle's bumper-car battle in 2004. None recovered enough to challenge Kurt Busch, who went on to win the race and ultimately the championship.

But Busch wasn't immune from the wreckage last season. Contact with Scott Riggs on the second lap of this race sent him spinning into the wall and to a 35th-place finish. It put him in a deep hole he could never climb out of, ruining his chances of defending his title.

So anything can happen Sunday when the top 10 jockey for position on New Hampshire's flat 1.058-mile oval. They'll be ever mindful of the 33 drivers racing around them who aren't eligible for the Nextel Cup title and don't really care what influence they have on the championship chase.

"This is a little bit like a short track because it's not an easy place to pass, so you'll see some bumping and banging and things happen," said Jeff Gordon, who is searching for his first title under the Chase format. "You've got guys who are battling for a championship. You've got guys that are trying to get themselves back into that form where they need to be to win races. You've got guys in the back of the pack trying to get into the top 35 in points, as well as guys trying to get to 11th.

"So there are several different races going on. It's not just 10 guys out there racing. Any time you have that, you can have some craziness."

It could come right off the bat, as several non-Chase drivers appear capable of winning on Sunday. Although Kevin Harvick, third in the Chase standings, won the pole and paced both of Saturday's practice sessions, he'll have plenty of competition from drivers not racing for the title.

Busch and Stewart both ran with the leaders Saturday, as did rookie Reed Sorenson, who has a crew chief unafraid of gambling in pursuit of an elusive first victory. And because of the tight confines of the track, passing will be at a premium and tempers could flare as drivers are held up by slower cars.

"It is an emotional race track because it is so difficult to pass," Chase driver Jeff Burton said. "Everybody tries to protect their position. When you try to pass them, even if you are better, it is going to take 30 more laps to get by them. There is a lot of defending here and there is a lot of offense because you have to be aggressive to pass someone.

"When you get a guy playing offense and another guy playing defense, there is a big chance for a wreck. This just isn't a track where you can just get out of the way."

And even if drivers could get out of the way, Burton doesn't expect to see anyone do so during these final 10 races.

"If you are not in the Chase, you have every right to go out and run the very best you can," he said. "If they can win the race, they need to go win the race. If they can run third and that means they put a Chase guy back to fourth, then that is what they need to do."