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For five Chase contenders, it's one for all

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jimmie Johnson has won four of the past five races, but he's still 18 points behind Kurt Busch going into the final race in The Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup Championship in Homestead, Fla., today.

"I guess we'll find out how big that 18 points is when everything is finished," Johnson, who drives the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, said during a teleconference Tuesday. "I feel the 97 [Busch] is under a lot of pressure, and I like the position both the Hendrick teams are in."

Three weeks ago in Atlanta, Johnson said he didn't want to be in the Cup points lead until the last race was in the books.

Eighteen points loom large. Johnson, for instance, could win today and pick up bonus points for leading the most laps, but if Busch finished second without leading a lap, Busch would still win the title by three points.

But Johnson, currently second in the Chase standings, is content where he is.

"Things happen when you're the leader," he said in Atlanta, and nothing has happened to change his mind.

All the pressure, according to Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin, the four men who are within 82 points of the lead, is on Busch and his No. 97 Jack Roush Ford.

"If I was Kurt," said Earnhardt, "I'd be really nervous. It's up to him and his team to win or lose it."

For Earnhardt, 72 points behind in fourth, and Martin, 82 points back in fifth, winning the championship isn't an option as long as the three men ahead of them in the standings run well.

Because of that, each was massaging his ego last week, preparing for the possibility of a top-five finish.

"I don't live in a dream world," said Earnhardt, who lost 25 points for using bad language on television and took another big points hit in Atlanta when he wrecked and cost himself a top-five finish. "We're still in it. We'll race with that attitude, but to do anything at all, we have to get the car right. It isn't right now."

For his part, Martin, who at 45 is nearly 20 years older than Busch, 26, said he is just delighted to be part of the party.

"We're in a really, really good position," said Martin, currently in fifth place. "It has been a fantastic year. For us, all of this is a bonus. We were 43rd in points after the Daytona 500, so we're just tickled to death to be in it."

Busch simply sounded like one cool customer. He was on the teleconference with his four pursuers last week and seemed unrattled.

He said he went through the first 26 races "under the radar" and because of that, he and his team have been able to push hard in this 10-race postseason.

"Handling the pressure has been a matter of balance," Busch said. "Our intent has been to win the first Nextel Cup. But all along the way, it has been fun. We've enjoyed it, and though winning the Cup is our optimum goal, if we fall a little short it doesn't matter, because we're having fun."

Part of Busch's casual perspective comes, perhaps, from being brought up in Las Vegas.

"There is so much happening there," he said. "If we were to win the Cup and take it to Las Vegas, the people there would probably be more interested in finding out where the next buffet line was than hoisting the trophy."

But Gordon said Busch is feeling much more than he is letting on.

"He knows the pressure is on," said Gordon, who's in third. "We're breathing right down his neck. I think he's feeling it and we'll find out how well he handles it in this race."

Busch did say today's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be "different."

"What will matter is how you protect your track position, and that means pit stops can have a heavy impact," he said. "Another thing that will be important is bonus points. Gaining bonus points throughout the race will be key."

Busch looked as if he'd lose his points lead at Atlanta when his was the first car out of the race. But, one by one, his closest challengers had their own troubles, and Busch held on to the lead over Johnson, who won the race and climbed into second place.

"At Atlanta, it felt like we threw away a 96-point lead," said Busch. "When that happened, my heart went in so many different directions. Everyone there was pulling together as a family in support of the Hendrick teams because of the tragedy," a reference to the Hendrick Motorsports plane crash that killed 10 family members, business associates and friends of car owner Rick Hendrick.

"It takes years to build the strength within yourself to handle what happened there. We lost those points, but to see the 48 car win. ... We didn't feel we had lost the Chase there, but ... "

But the momentum swung.

Johnson and Gordon have been on a major league charge ever since, wanting not only to win the championship for themselves but also to win it to honor their lost friends. While Johnson has been winning, Gordon has been slugging his way through the pack for three third-place finishes. One of those, last week in Darlington, S.C., could have been a victory had not a bad pit stop delayed him and cost him the lead with fewer than 25 laps to go.

Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, recalled the tight contest among Martin, Dale Jarrett and him at the end of the 1997 season. He had the lead going into the last race in Atlanta that season and was able to hold on to the title despite car trouble.

Though he said Busch is feeling pressure, Gordon also said the 1997 result gives him perspective.

"Holding the points lead is nerve-racking and intense," Gordon said. "In 1997, we struggled all day, but we got it done. If I had my choice, I'd want to be in Kurt's position, even though I like the idea that Jimmie and I can go for broke.

"Kurt's not so far ahead he can relax, but if he runs a solid race, there isn't much we can do."

Handicapping contenders in The Chase

Coming into the final race in The Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup Championship, the Ford 400 in Homestead, Fla., The Sun's Sandra McKee asked NBC analyst Benny Parsons - the 1973 Cup champion - to handicap the five drivers who are within 82 points of the title.

Overview

"What all five have going for them is equal amounts of adrenaline, and I think that will overshadow any advantage one or the other might have on Homestead's 1.5-mile racetrack. This is desperation time. It's like there is a checkered flag taped to the back bumper of every car in front of them. Except for Kurt Busch. He sees the white flag waving and the end in sight."

Kurt Busch

"It looked early like he might run away with it. But since then he has struggled to run up front. He's spun out three times in the final nine races, but he hasn't hit anything yet. His luck is holding."

Jimmie Johnson

"Is he on a roll or what? Look at what has happened over the last five races [Johnson has won four of them]. He's good enough to beat them all and I expect him to be phenomenal."

Jeff Gordon

"His crew chief, Robbie Loomis, told me before Darlington, 'We just want to do everything right. We don't want a mistake to haunt us.' But they made a mistake that cost Gordon that race. Gordon is a [four-time] champion. That probably helps him a little bit - he's turned possible bad finishes into good ones in the last nine races - but those championships don't help his crew, most of whom are new to this situation."

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"He really has lost this championship at least twice - the 25-point penalty for swearing shook everyone up, and then being overeager and wrecking when he was headed for a top-five finish a week or so later. I admire how they've raced through those problems, but all they can do here is try to win and hope the top three have problems."

Mark Martin

"Mark has always been a guy whose glass is half empty, but in this 'Chase,' all of a sudden, the glass is half full. He's having fun and the way he has raced has been very impressive. He just has to depend on Busch, Johnson, Gordon and Junior [Earnhardt] having trouble. I do think he can beat Junior for fourth."

Today's race

What: Ford 400, season-ending NASCAR Nextel Cup event

When: Today, 1 p.m.

Where: Homestead (Fla.)-Miami Speedway

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Pole-sitter: Kurt Busch

Series point leaders 1. Kurt Busch 6,346 2. Jimmie Johnson 6,328 3. Jeff Gordon 6,325 4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 6,274 5. Mark Martin 6,264

NASCAR

Nextel Cup

Ford 400 lineup

At Homestead, Fla (Car number in parentheses)

1. (97) Kurt Busch, Ford, 179.319 mph 2. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 179.307 3. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 179.093 4. (9) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 178.891 5. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevy, 178.719 6. (18) Bobby Labonte, Chevy, 178.542 7. (21) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 178.006 8. (20) Tony Stewart, Chevy, 177.866 9. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevy, 177.807 10. (2) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 177.708

11. (6) Mark Martin, Ford, 177.602 12. (0) Mike Bliss, Chevy, 177.486 13. (23) Shane Hmiel, Dodge, 177.421 14. (25) Brian Vickers, Chevy, 177.218 15. (38) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 177.194 16. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevy, 177.101 17. (77) Brendan Gaughan, Dodge, 177.067 18. (42) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, 177.026 19. (01) Joe Nemechek, Chevy, 176.922 20. (19) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 176.881

21. (22) Scott Wimmer, Dodge, 176.869 22. (99) Carl Edwards, Ford, 176.846 23. (14) John Andretti, Ford, 176.846 24. (15) Michael Waltrip, Chevy, 176.499 25. (10) Scott Riggs, Chevy, 176.465 26. (06) Travis Kvapil, Dodge, 176.229 27. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 176.085 28. (4) Mike Wallace, Chevy, 176.062 29. (32) Bobby Hamilton Jr., Chevy, 175.787 30. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 175.764

31. (43) Jeff Green, Dodge, 175.655 32. (36) Boris Said, Chevy, 175.564 33. (31) Robby Gordon, Chevy, 175.518 34. (13) Greg Sacks, Dodge, 175.319 35. (1) Martin Truex Jr, Chevy, 175.256 36. (02) Hermie Sadler, Chevy, 175.245 37. (00) Kenny Wallace, Chevy, 175.046 38. (40) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, 175.041 39. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, provisional 40. (30) Jeff Burton, Chevy, provisional

41. (41) Casey Mears, Dodge, provisional 42. (5) Terry Labonte, Chevy, provisional 43. (49) Ken Schrader, Dodge, provisional

Failed to qualify 44. (45) Kyle Petty, Dodge, 174.780 45. (09) Johnny Sauter, Dodge, 173.986 46. (75) Mike Garvey, Dodge, 173.969 47. (51) Tony Raines, Chevy, 173.728 48. (37) Kevin Lepage, Dodge, 173.444 49. (50) Todd Bodine, Dodge, 172.778 50. (11) J.J. Yeley, Chevy, 172.166 51. (70) Larry Foyt, Dodge, 171.510 52. (98) Randy LaJoie, Ford, 170.864 53. (89) Morgan Shepherd, Dodge, 170.320

54. (72) Kirk Shelmerdine, Ford, 167.780 55. (80) Carl Long, Ford, 167.084 56. (93) Geoffrey Bodine, Chevy, no speed

Parsons' pick

"Oh, my. This is too close to call. But, if you make me, I'd say Jimmie Johnson and that crew are going to be on their game."

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