HOMESTEAD, Fla. Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't nervous about Sunday's Ford 400 his last chance to win the Nextel Cup Series championship.
Neither is Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson or Mark Martin.
The only driver still mathematically alive to win the Chase for the Championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway who seems like he's telling the truth is Jeff Gordon. The veteran of four championships said the pressure is overwhelming.
All five drivers are separated by 82 points and the top three by only 21. The winner will earn more than $5.25 million in bonuses.
And all five have different ideas about what it will take to win the championship.
Earnhardt Jr., Johnson, Gordon and Martin have made Busch, the points leader, the target. It's a position Busch enjoys.
"Well, that's the focal point, is to be able to balance out the regular stress of the regular season as well as the high intensity pressure of this playoff atmosphere," Busch said. "It's been fun to be part of. No matter what the outcome is on Sunday, we've brought our team to this level, we've had a tremendous amount of fun being able to compete like this.
"If we win the championship, that is the absolute optimum goal. If we come up just a bit short, that doesn't really matter to us. We're having fun doing it."
Busch leads Johnson by 18 points less than four finishing positions while Gordon is only 21 points behind. Earnhardt Jr. is 72 points behind, while Martin is 82.
Martin has finished second in the points race four times. While everyone agrees Earnhardt Jr. is the fan favorite to win on Sunday, Martin clearly is the sentimental choice. And his advice to everyone else in the Chase: You have to lose a championship before you learn how to win one.
Everyone else considered that to be another one of many mind games being played this week among the contenders.
"I think what that goes back to is you have to understand what all goes into it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I believe in paying your dues, you know. So I won't be miserable throughout the winter if I do lose this championship. I'll take that excuse."
Martin clearly knows what it takes to lose a championship. That's why he's not getting himself worked up for this one.
"There are some things that I could do 15 or 20 years ago that I probably can't do today. But there's some other things that I do pretty well," Martin said. "Well, you know, everyone learns from their experiences. I have definitely learned a lot of things through my life's experiences, as well as my racing experiences over the years. That sort of weighs in on your judgment."
Earnhardt Jr. said he's rolling with the punches. The 72-point deficit is manageable, but passing three other drivers in the standings will be a difficult task.
"We just have to go out there and race as hard as we can and throw, you know, everything we got at it and see what happens," Earnhardt said. "That's really not hard at all.
"Kurt has to look ahead and look behind at the same time. That's got to be really tough. I'm sure he's going to be glad when it's all over with. So will the rest of us. But it's been a lot of fun."
Busch insists he's having fun. And he likes being out front.
"Knowing that this playoff series was going to be as difficult as it's been, to lead the points, to race each race as if it were the last one, and the amount of pressure that's come our way, to be able to talk to the media eight weeks straight by being the points leader, it's something we've prepared ourselves for by just having a cool and relaxed regular season," he said.
Johnson said he wasn't sure if would rather be the leader or the chaser going into the last race. But after leading the series standings during most of the first 26 races that determined the 10 qualifiers for the Chase, he knows there's baggage that comes with being the leader.
"You know, there's a lot of pressure that I feel the 97 team (Busch) is under," he said. "We've been in that position through this season. We've had bad luck with that pressure on our shoulders. We just have to go out, be aggressive, race hard. That's what both teams are very good at."
Gordon will be glad to cross the finish line. He said anyone who doesn't think there's pressure isn't telling the truth.
"Yeah, I think it's nerve-wracking and intense no matter where you're at," Gordon said. "If you've got a shot at the championship, then the pressure's on.
"(Busch'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."
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