RICHMOND, Va. -- Not even 10 laps into the Monte Carlo 400 on Saturday night, a crash that ended Winston Cup points leader Sterling Marlin's night created an opportunity for his pursuers.
Many of them capitalized, and with 10 races remaining, stock car racing's premier series now has its closest championship race in history.
Marlin entered the race with a 91-point lead over defending champion Jeff Gordon, who quickly looked like the odds-on choice to leave Richmond International Raceway as the leader in pursuit of his fifth championship.
Then Gordon pulled his Chevrolet into the garage, a 40th-place finish in the making that sabotaged his chance to make any notable gains.
Tony Stewart and Rusty Wallace also looked for a time like the potential big winners. But Stewart's Pontiac developed rear-end problems that dropped him from third to 30th, and Wallace blew a tire with 11 laps to go while running second and was relegated to a 15th-place showing.
In the end, Marlin had his second last-place finish of the season, a sore back, chest contusions and just a nine-point lead over Mark Martin.
''It seems like when one of us has problems, the other one does, too,'' Marlin said of his team and Gordon's, which dropped to fourth in points.
''We'll just do the best we can every week from here on out like we've been doing all season, add 'em up at Homestead and see where we stack up.''
The race had started with 167 points separating the top five drivers. It ended with the five jumbled and just 118 points apart. No top five has ever been so close since the points system was implemented in 1975.
''With 10 races to go, I'd say you've got about 10 cars that have a shot at the championship,'' said Bill Elliott, who went from 265 points behind Marlin in seventh place to just 184 points off the lead.
A driver can make up 151 points in a single race.
After Martin, rookie Jimmie Johnson is 72 points back, Gordon is 82 points back, Stewart is 118 points behind and Wallace trails by 146 points.
Matt Kenseth, who posted his series-high fourth victory with a dominating performance, jumped from 10th to a tie for eighth with Ricky Rudd, 248 points behind. Rookie Ryan Newman is 271 back in 10th place.
Wallace, who also missed out on a chance to win $1 million for himself and a fan as part of Winston's No Bull promotion, was left frustrated.
''We gained on Sterling and Gordon and tightened the points race up a little bit, but, man, it could have been a lot better than that,'' he said.
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