Ford 400 Will Be Shootout for Title

Friday, November 19th 2004, 11:41 am
By: News On 6

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) _ Forget about strategy. The five drivers competing for the Nextel Cup championship have no choice other than to race for a victory.

With only 82 points separating leader Kurt Busch from fifth-place Mark Martin, with Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in between, there are countless possibilities going into the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday.

But it all starts with a victory.

After stumbling at the start of NASCAR's new 10-man, 10-race playoff-style championship, Johnson has charged back into contention with four wins in the last five races.

Just 18 points back, he can claim the championship by winning Sunday and leading the most laps if Busch finishes second without leading any.

``There's a lot of pressure that I feel the 97 team is under,'' Johnson said of Busch. ``We've been in that position through this season and we've had bad luck with that pressure on our shoulders.

``I like the position that both Hendrick cars are in. 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.''

Gordon is 21 points behind Busch under a scoring system that gives the race winner 10 points more than the runner-up. Any driver leading a lap gets five bonus points and the driver leading the most laps gets five more.

A second-place finish by Busch would prevent Gordon from winning his fifth NASCAR title.

``I think it's nerve-racking and intense no matter where you're at,'' Gordon said. ``You've got to go out there and run hard.''

Gordon figures Busch is definitely in the best position, though.

``The closest thing that I have to compare to this would be when Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and myself were going for the championship in '97,'' said Gordon, who wound up beating Jarrett for the title by 14 points that year.

``I had the points lead by a small margin, and it was a good position to be in because it was our championship to lose, and we knew that,'' he said. ``Those other guys really had to be on the huge offense.

``If I had my choice, I'd want to be in Kurt's position, but I do like the fact we get to go out there and go for broke. We know we have to lead laps and win the race.''

Busch appeared well on the way to the championship before an engine failure slowed his momentum at Atlanta and let the other contenders back into the fray. Since then, he has finished 10th at Phoenix and a struggling sixth last Sunday at Darlington.

But if Busch wins Sunday or finishes second and leads a lap, he will get his first Cup title no matter what the other drivers do.

``We need to go out and attack the racetrack this weekend, to lead laps and to make sure that we do our job at the end of the race,'' Busch said.

The job is tougher for Earnhardt and Martin, who trail Busch by 72 and 82 points, respectively. They need to substantially outrace the others.

``We dug ourselves a pretty big hole at Darlington,'' said Earnhardt, who finished 11th last Sunday after pitting late in the race for a battery change. ``It will be difficult to climb out and still win this championship. We're going to have to be the best team at Homestead as well as the luckiest.''

Martin, a four-time series runner-up, would need even more good fortune than Earnhardt.

``We're going to go to Homestead and race for a win,'' said Martin, who finished second at Darlington to remaining viable in the Chase. ``I don't really think all of those other guys are going to have a bad race, but we can't control that. We can only control what we're doing on the track and try to get the best finish we can.''