DOVER, Del. -- One thing is for sure: No one involved in this Winston Cup points race is going to let any of the others out of his sight.
Yesterday, during the last practice before today's MBNA All-American Heroes 400 at Dover International Speedway, the top five men in the points race tested themselves against each other.
"I ran with the No. 24 [Jeff Gordon] and the No. 6 [Mark Martin] and I was able to run down all the key players," said rookie Jimmie Johnson, who is third in the points race. "So I think we'll be in good shape."
With nine races to go, the Winston Cup Series is caught up in the tightest championship battle since the points system was installed in 1975.
Martin is the leader by six points over Sterling Marlin, who led the standings from the February race in Rockingham, N.C., until last week in New Hampshire. Johnson is 40 points behind Martin; Tony Stewart is fourth, 59 points back, and Gordon is fifth, 67 points out.
Even 10th-place Ricky Rudd is within 227 points, which is closer than the late Alan Kulwicki was in 1992 when he rallied from a deficit of 278 points with six races left.
That 1992 battle produced the closest points finish in series history, with Kulwicki winning by 10 over Bill Elliott.
"This has been a pretty wild year," said Tony Glover, manager of Marlin's team. "One team gets on a roll for a month and then another team gets on a roll for a month and nobody has been as consistent as they needed to be.
"It's real hard right now. Everything is so competitive. Used to be you had only a handful or maybe two handfuls of cars that could win. Now, you've got basically the whole field. If you're off a little bit, you can run 20th."
The situation puts the pressure on everyone to perform. And it has created interest among fellow drivers who are mathematically out of the mix.
Yesterday, there was a running debate over who might win the title.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose father won seven of these titles and who might be expected to know a little about title hunts, is putting his money on Marlin.
"I hope Sterling can maintain a good pace and win it," Earnhardt said. "He's been part of this sport for a long time and I just appreciate him for that. Five or six years ago, a lot of people wouldn't have given him a chance to be in this position, including me. So it's great at this point in his career to see him doing this."
Dale Jarrett, who will start on the outside of the front row beside pole-sitter Rusty Wallace, hedged his bets.
"Mark might be able to hold on," said Jarrett. "I know he's never won one, so I wish him luck in getting it. But I think they all have to beat Jeff Gordon. He's not in the lead, but I think down the stretch he's still the guy to beat."
Gordon, four-time and defending Winston Cup champ, would like to be the guy. But, so far, he said, he hasn't felt as if he's in the points race.
"I feel like all we've been doing is focusing on our own program, trying to get better each week and just being as good a team as we can possibly be," he said.
"For some reason, we've been able to stay in the top five for a good part of the season. ... But if we want a really good shot at the title, we have to get some spectacular things happening in the next five or six weeks."
He'd like to start here. Even though his Chevrolet was just 24th fastest in qualifying, he thinks his chances will improve during the race because of the tires Goodyear has brought here.
For the past two years, the tires were of a hard compound that makes it possible for drivers to race from fuel stop to fuel stop without pitting for fresh tires. Gordon has won six times at Dover, but the last time was three years ago, just before those hard tires came into play.
"I'm looking forward to having a tire that falls off [loses its grip] so that you've got to come in and get four tires and make adjustments," he said. "Just staying out until the fuel runs out at a place like Dover is just ridiculous. I'm looking forward to getting back to the way we used to race here. I think it brings the whole team and driver -- the whole combination -- into it more when the tires start to go."
From the wings, Wallace smiled. He's sitting on the pole today and is sixth in points -- 146 behind. His car continued to be the fastest during practice and he believes opportunity could be about to knock for him.
"I don't think I've ever seen a points race like this," Wallace said. "Everyone is trying to give it away. My hope is that I'll rotate to the top and it will stop there for me."