Kurt Busch, racing for his first Nextel Cup title, holds a 41-point lead over four-time champion Jeff Gordon with two races remaining. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin, none of whom has won a Cup title, are all within 104 points of the leader going into the race at Darlington Raceway.
''We all really have the same stake here,'' Gordon said. ''Yeah, (Busch) has a lead, but he doesn't have a big enough lead to protect it or pad it. He knows he's got to go out there and win.
''We all know we've got to win. We've got to run up front and finish ahead of those guys. I think Kurt feels that, and Jimmie and Junior and Mark feel that. That's what makes this so intense right now. It's not about getting a top 10, it's about getting wins.''
Martin, a four-time series runner-up and the long shot in this championship, agrees.
''If we win the last two races, the points will take care of themselves,'' he said. ''That's all we can do and it's probably what we have to do to have any chance.''
In the first eight races of the inaugural 10-man, 10-race Chase for the Cup playoff-style championship, Johnson has won three times, Earnhardt twice and Busch once. Martin has two runner-up finishes and Gordon one since the Chase began.
Johnson, who won the spring race here, got himself back into the title hunt by winning three in a row before finishing sixth last week at Phoenix.
''The best thing this team can do is to act and feel like we did three weeks ago, which is to say, 'We don't have a shot at it and we just need to go out there and win races, because that's worked for us,''' Johnson said. ''When we play offense, we do a lot better job that when we play defense.''
Qualifying on Friday was rained out, with NASCAR setting the lineup by car owner points. That means the contenders will all start up front, but they agree that worrying about what the others are doing on the racetrack isn't a big help at this point.
''There are so many variables that it's really about racing your car the best that you can every week and not worrying about your competition,'' Busch said. ''That's why I'm so excited about the Darlington race because you have to race the racetrack here.
''Next week at Homestead may be different. Then, you may be asking where the other contenders are, what their tire strategy or fuel strategy is. This week, you just have to keep your mind on your own race and on a very tough racetrack.''
Darlington was NASCAR's first superspeedway and its unique 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval is narrow and treacherous.
''Nobody argues that it's difficult,'' said Gordon, who leads all active drivers with six Darlington wins. ''This is a tough racetrack and they only made it more difficult last year when they put the soft walls in here and took away 30 inches of racing room that we didn't have to begin with.
''Some run horrible here and some run good. I think everybody is just focusing on getting the most out of their own car and their own team.''
Earnhardt, whose best finish here was fourth in March 2002, needs to find a way to follow up on his big victory last Sunday at Phoenix. He got off to a rocky start in practice on Friday, hitting the wall hard enough that he had to switch to a backup car for the race.
''Some guys just come in here from the beginning and they get it,'' he said. ''Guys like myself just have to continue to work at it and work at it. I don't know if this will be the weekend or not. I just want to get in here and have a solid run. Hopefully, at some point in the race this car is doing what I want it to do. That's actually what I call success at Darlington.''
He won't have to worry about that if he makes next year's Chase. Darlington will not be part of the final 10 races in 2005.
With a capacity of only about 60,000 and a recent history of empty seats Darlington will lose one of its two Cup races next season, with NASCAR moving the fall event to Texas Motor Speedway: newer, in a bigger market and virtually assured a crowd of more than 200,000.
NASCAR already moved the Southern 500 off its traditional Memorial Day weekend this year, giving that date to California Speedway, another of the new tracks.
But it remains an important event this year and, beyond the significance to the championship race, winning the final Southern 500 would mean a lot to any of the contenders.
''There's a bigger stake and a bigger prize we're focused on, but this race definitely has a big meaning to it,'' Busch said.
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