- Mike Massaro
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DARLINGTON, S.C. -- With five drivers compressed in the clutches of a pressure-filled Nextel Cup Championship Chase, the season finale's shaping up to be a Miami-vise. And Jimmie Johnson -- no relation to Don -- will play a starring role.
With his Darlington victory, his eighth win of the season and fourth in the past five races, Johnson has ratcheted up the pressure on points leader Kurt Busch. He now trails by just 18 points heading to Homestead.
"It's going to be a heck of a shootout," Johnson said. "NASCAR got what they wanted here."
There's record congestion atop the leader board, with the tensely compressed standings now featuring three drivers with legitimate championship chances and two with an outside shot. Busch, Johnson, Jeff Gordon (3rd), Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (4th) and Mark Martin (5th) are separated by just 82 points -- the closest the top five have ever been heading into the season's final race.
In 1992, under a different points system, six drivers were within 113 points of each other with one race to go.
Busch, who has recorded top-10 finishes in all but one 'Chase' event, remains in control, but his lead has become tenuous. What was seemingly a solid 96-point advantage three weeks ago has shrunk to 18.
"We've somewhat lost it over the past few weeks," admitted Busch. "We know we need to put a stop to that going into the final race. We need to go out and attack the racetrack, to lead laps and to make sure that we do our job at the end of the race."
Meanwhile, Johnson's momentum is on an upward swing. His recent flourish has allowed him to climb from ninth and erase a deficit of 247 points. It was a deficit that once appeared insurmountable.
"I thought we were out of the championship," Johnson said. "I didn't think that three guys would have problems. I figured one guy would go clean. But all three had problems and it brought us into it."
Statistically Gordon's biggest problem was a 34th-place finish in Atlanta. However, if the four-time champ falls short in his drive for five, he might point to Sunday's third-place finish.
"I'm just disappointed right now that we didn't get a win," said Gordon, now 21 points out of the lead.
After leading a race-high 155 laps Gordon relinquished the lead during a late race pit stop, after his team made the crucial error of inadvertently wedging the air hose beneath Gordon's rear tire.
"I'm a little bit disgusted right now with that," Gordon said. "I know we all make mistakes. It's just this late in the game, those types of mistakes can cost you a championship and even throw a championship away."
Earnhardt Jr. didn't throw it away, but he's feeling the Championship slip away. The Budweiser team struggled at Darlington, ultimately finishing 11th.
"The whole place just needs new asphalt and believe me, I'd pay for it myself," vented Earnhardt. "I'd buy the whole damn thing if I could."
Junior is still alive in the Chase but understands the reality of being 72 points back. "That's too many, that's too many points," Earnhardt lamented.
He may be right. The greatest deficit any eventual champ erased with one to go was 30, when Alan Kulwicki overcame Davey Allison to win the championship by 10, beating Bill Elliott in 1992. In fact, the point leader going into the final race has been upset only twice since 1975. Richard Petty also erased Darrell Waltrip's two-point lead in 1979.
Still there's hope for guys like Johnson who would prefer being the chaser than the chasee.
"Our team works the best in those situations," Johnson said. "When we've got to play defense, we have trouble. If we show up and you stack the odds against us, things happen for us."
Gordon not only faces a 21-point deficit but also has to leapfrog two very strong teams to capture his fifth title. He does, however, have experience on his side, and one other thing -- motivation.
"We're hungry and I'm glad I'm mad right now because I'm looking forward to going to Homestead really mad," asserted Gordon.
Johnson said it best. It's going to be a South Beach shootout. And, that is exactly what NASCAR wanted. That's what everybody wants, except maybe those feeling the pressure of the Miami-vise.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.
There's a Johnson starring in this drama series as it hits South Beach, but the name's Jimmie, not Don.