CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Everything went wrong for Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon in the fifth round of NASCAR's championship chase. Still, neither lost ground in their pursuit of the Nextel Cup title.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has to be wondering what it will take to reclaim the top position. He did everything right at Lowe's Motor Speedway, finished third in the race, and still trails Busch by 24 points in the standings with Gordon closing in behind him.
How so? Because Busch and Gordon were able to overcome every obstacle thrown their way.
From a lap-one accident involving both to late-race spins and dodging spilled oil on the track, they proved to be true championship contenders. Busch finished fourth, two spots behind Gordon.
"I've just got to keep finishing ahead of them," an exasperated Earnhardt said. "Kurt's got his A game. We've got our A game going on right now. We've just got to keep having the same kind of weekend. You just try to get what you can get."
The sixth round of the Chase is Sunday in Martinsville, Va., and for all practical purposes, it's a three-man Subway 500 race.
Unless all three of the top drivers have massive problems - and two of them did in Charlotte but still managed to overcome them - there's no way the rest of the contenders can challenge.
And it's unlikely they'll gain ground at Martinsville, where all three of the lead drivers have fine records.
t●Busch has two Martinsville wins, including one in 2002 from the 36th starting position, the farthest back a race winner has started there.
t●Earnhardt has five consecutive top-five finishes at Martinsville, the longest top-five streak among any active driver.
t●Gordon is the Martinsville master. In 23 starts, he has five victories, five poles, 12 top-fives and 17 top-10s. He swept both poles and races in 2003, and has led 46 percent of the laps during the past three races.
When reminded the scene was shifting to Martinsville, Gordon shouted with glee. But a new surface on the Virginia short track has him worried.
"I wish they hadn't repaved Martinsville because I think we had a big edge on the competition with the old conditions," he said. "The new conditions are closing the competition up on us a little bit."
Busch used one of his team testing sessions to practice on the new surface, and knows it will present challenges to the contenders.
"The new surface there is going to provide for a different type of racing," he said. "It's going to be single-file for a while and a matter of staying out of trouble.
"Another element that's going to be new to Martinsville is the center of corner speed. There are going to be guys that gain so much speed through the center of the corner on somebody that you've got to protect your radiator, so it's going to be a battle."
All 10 of the contenders have proved capable of adapting, but none is better than Gordon. That's why several competitors are picking the four-time series champion to have a fifth title at the end of the season.
Gordon isn't denying the logic.
"A lot of the members of this team were here when we won the championship in 2001," he said. "The chemistry, on top of the experience we have, allows us to be a very good team and make comebacks."
Gordon should excel this weekend. He should have earned his sixth Martinsville race in the spring, but a chunk of concrete broke loose and damaged his car after he led 180 of the first 272 laps.
It took four pit stops to fix the damage, but Gordon still managed a sixth-place finish.
"We would love to win this thing, but it's hard to pick anybody who is a favorite right now," Gordon said. "I know the past experience plays a role, but when you look at the way the championship is this year, I just think it's putting the best car and team out there week in and week out."
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