With two to go, four drivers within 48 points
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- OK, so this is what NASCAR had in mind when it came up with its radical new points system.
NASCAR wanted a playoff series, like something other major sports use to crown its champion. What it got is the Final Four on wheels.
Four top-name drivers head into the final two races in a flag-to-flag points race, a scenario NASCAR officials could only have dreamed about when they created the 10-man, 10-race playoff system at the start of the season.
Kurt Busch had been building a steady lead in the standings, but mediocre runs in the past two weeks have sliced his lead from 59-points to 41 over Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are right on Busch's bumper, too.
All three challengers are within 48 points of the leader. The last time four drivers had a chance at the title this late in the season was 1992, when Alan Kulwicki, Bill Elliott, Davey Allison and Harry Gant went into the final two events separated by 113 points.
So, what kind of racing should we see in the next two weeks?
"It's going to be aggressive, hard racing,'' said Gordon, seeking his fifth title. "Anybody who has a shot at it is going to be on edge and feel more pressure. They're going to be driving aggressive or they're going to be thinking about it too much and make a mistake.''
The three challengers all think Busch is in the worst position.
He was seemingly on his way to a runaway championship after six races, overcoming every problem thrown his way while building a 100-point lead in the standings.
Then his engine blew up in Atlanta and all of his challengers finished in front of him in Phoenix last week.
"You've got a guy who's got to be careful,'' Gordon said, referring to Busch. "I kind of like the position I'm in right now because the No. 97 has to be more cautious than I do.''
But Busch insists he wouldn't trade the position he's in. When asked about his favorite to win the Nextel Cup, he didn't hesitate.
"I'd have to go with a vote toward the 97 team,'' he said. "With the way we've been competitive at some of the short tracks, as well as the speedways, and just being able to outrace the competitors.''
NASCAR's Final Four hits high gear Sunday with the final Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Gordon is the best driver there, with six victories on NASCAR's oldest superspeedway. But his most recent win there was in 2001, and he's struggled since then with finishes of 33rd, 32nd and 41st in his three most recent trips.
Busch was second, 13th and sixth in his last three visits.
Earnhardt, who pulled within 47 points of Busch by winning in Phoenix, struggles at Darlington. He's winless there, with finishes of sixth, 25th and 10th in his last three races.
He's no better at Homestead, site of the season finale, where he has finishes of 13th, 15th, 21st and 24th.
"We haven't dominated those race tracks, Darlington or Homestead, but with the team that we've got now, I feel like we can go in there and have a weekend that we've never had at either one of those tracks,'' he said.
"We'll be in Homestead all week really working our guts out every day in testing and trying to get it right. We thought about it last weekend and want to put ourselves back in position to win. We've got a lot to gain. These guys ain't going to be easy to beat.''
But Busch isn't worried about any of the challengers, even Johnson, who won three consecutive races to climb back into contention.
"They've got to catch us,'' Busch said. "We're in the best position to continue to move forward. They have to reach out and gain positions and take advantage of other people sliding around on the track, and put their cars in awkward positions.''
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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