- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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And down the stretch they come.
As Nextel Cup Series teams roll into Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend, it's the end of a marathon that began a few hours up the road with January testing at Daytona. And for all but five of the teams at Homestead, a large part of the focus is already on next year.
Some drivers, and even more crewmen will change teams during the offseason, an annual rite in the sport. Many are already focusing on taking a break and getting away for the holidays.
But for the five teams still in contention for the championship, this weekend is Christmas Eve. Come Sunday afternoon, they'll finally learn whether Santa Claus -- in this case Chase for the Nextel Cup architect Brian France -- will be leaving them a pony under the tree, or simply lumps of coal.
Four teams will head back to North Carolina with some disappointment thinking about how things could have turned out differently to result in a championship. One, meanwhile, will celebrate a championship as hard earned as any in the sport's history. Here's a look at the five contenders, in order of the current standings, and what it will take for them to win it all.
They often say it's better to be lucky than good and Busch has had the best of both worlds since the Chase began.
By winning at New Hampshire, Busch served notice that his team was up for the task. In veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig, his team immediately has an edge in overall experience and the type of calming presence necessary to keep Busch focused if things start going wrong.
Fennig has been down this road before, but has never emerged with a championship. This year, though, the ball is in the hands of both he and Busch as they can control their own fate -- something the other four teams can't do.
Even if Jimmie Johnson wins yet again this weekend, Busch can close out the title by finishing in second and leading a lap.
A lack of track time here last season -- the only race experience here that actually translates after the track was reconfigured prior to 2003 -- works against Busch, but one season's worth of experience for his contenders isn't all that much to overcome, either.
Busch is looking forward to the challenge.
"This is a racetrack that is definitely different from Darlington in the fact that you can race side by side, and track position will be important. But it will be a matter of how you protect that track position," says Busch, who was helped greatly by near-perfect pit stops late in the Mountain Dew Southern 500. "Toward the end of the race, we know that pit stops can change -- have a heavy impact on how it changes the positions at the end of the race. So we're looking forward to having those consistent pit stops that we had from last week implemented into our program at the end of the day to see if we can come out on top.
"To gain bonus points [for leading a lap and leading the most laps] throughout the race will be a key because of how tight the championship race is. To be able to execute properly at the end of the race is what it's going to come down to."
Busch probably isn't the trendy pick -- that spot deservedly goes to Johnson based on his hot streak -- but it's still Busch's title to lose and the guess here is that he'll find a way to maintain his lead.
His hot streak can't last forever, can it? At least that's what Busch has to be wondering by now. Johnson, though, is hoping for one more win and a finish by Busch that allows him to kick open the door to claim the title many had him ear-marked for back in July.
Johnson's team is bringing a ton of momentum and the confidence that goes with it to Homestead. The team's test could have produced faster speeds, but there's no telling exactly what crew chief Chad Knaus was focusing on during the session, so practice speeds must be taken with a grain of salt.
A third-place finish here last November shows that Johnson has quickly adapted to the track's new banking. Expect him to run well again this weekend, the way he has since assuming the championship was out of his grasp after getting caught up in a wreck at Kansas.
Johnson altered his approach at that point and has been seemingly unstoppable ever since.
"We switched gears in our heads and started playing offense, trying to win races, trying to finish up the season on a positive note," Johnson said. "And if there were troubles [for the other contenders], then we would be back in the middle of it. That's the way it's turned out for us.
"I think we have to go to Homestead with that same thing in mind, go out to win the race. Because if you look at the points, Kurt is in the lead, Jeff is right behind us. You're going to have to, you know, finish first or second to win this championship, in my eyes. So going down there to run eighth or 10th and race conservatively, I don't think, is going to win the championship."
Johnson said trailing Busch isn't too big of a concern.
"I like the position that both Hendrick cars are in," he said. "We're very close to Kurt in points. We just have to go out, be aggressive, race hard. That's what both teams are very good at."
Look for Johnson to win Sunday, though just missing out on the championship to Busch.
A great run at Homestead coupled with a little luck might just be enough for Gordon to win his fifth Cup championship. That would move him within two titles of matching legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Gordon, though, says he's taking things the proverbial one championship at a time and is not worrying about the record books. That's a good idea, because it's going to take a little bit of luck for him to take the fifth this time around.
"I've always looked at it one at a time. I never dreamed I'd have four," Gordon said. "Here I am with a shot at five. Seven to me, it's not really even something that I think about or a goal that I feel like I have to accomplish before I step away from the sport.
"I feel like I got a lot of good years left in me. We'd love to be able to get to seven, but I got to get to five first. Get to five, then I got to get to six. That's kind of the way I look at it is one at a time. If it doesn't happen, I can walk away at any time. I mean, I'm so fortunate to have had the success that I've had, you know, I don't need another championship.
"We want it because we're competitors and because we know how good our organization is, what we're capable of. That's why we go out there and battle for race wins and championships now, not just because we feel like we have to match what Earnhardt and Petty did."
While Johnson says he'd rather be on the attack, his teammate admits he'd be more than willing to change spots with Busch at this point.
"If I had my choice, I'd want to be in Kurt's position," Gordon said. "I like the fact we get to go out there and go for broke, we know we basically have to lead laps and win the race. But, you know, I still -- if I had my choice, I'd rather be out there in front with a little bit of a margin, and then just go out there and perform.
"He's not so far ahead to where he can just relax, but he's far enough ahead that if he runs a solid race and keeps us in sight, then there's not much we can do."
Unfortunately for Gordon, that's likely how it will play out this year, with him settling for third.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Many who believe NASCAR's marketing executives dearly want to see Earnhardt Jr. win the title believe the Chase was designed with Junior in mind. If so, though, they forgot to find a way to guarantee him the title.
And barring a miracle, it'll be "wait 'til next year" for Earnhardt Jr. He struggled at Homestead last year, which proved to be a sign of things to come as he's had problems at similar tracks much of this season. Earnhardt Jr. tested well here, but he's pretty much going to need to win the race and get a whole lot of help for it to matter.
"We got to race hard because we don't want to finish fifth, we don't want to finish fourth, third or second. We're going to go in there and do the best we can," Junior said. "Reality of the situation is, you know, we didn't run good there last year. The test wasn't a 100 percent success. So I don't live in a dream world.
"I know what the facts are. We just got to figure out how to get a better race car before the race starts because, frankly, I think we don't have what it takes right now as far as the way the test went. The car don't drive exactly the way I want it to. We got to work really hard during the practice sessions and try to get the car right."
If any driver among the top five's going to struggle this weekend, it will likely be Earnhardt, dropping him behind Martin and into fifth in points.
The sentimental favorite's going to need a lot more than sentiment to jump past four drivers, but look for Martin to do his part with yet another top-five finish.
And no matter what happens, he's going to consider this season a success.
"For me, we're in a really, really good position because we've had such a fantastic year after a disappointing year last year," Martin said. "For us, this is all a bonus, just to be a part of it and to be running so well. I'm just tickled to death to be in this thing and to be a contender. We're going to go to Homestead and race for a win. That's what we did last week at Darlington.
"It was a lot of pressure for us to get into the Chase from where we were. That's where the really, really high pressure was for us. The toughest part of the season was the first 26 races, especially leaving Daytona 43rd [after blowing an engine in the season opener]."
Rest assured, Martin's not throwing in the towel by any means. He's just taking a realistic approach and will head home happy -- most likely sitting fourth in the final standings.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
While many pick hot Jimmie Johnson to win the Nextel Cup, Kurt Busch does have an edge.