Nextel Cup title race heats up in NASCAR

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.

How so? Because Busch and Gordon were able to overcome every obstacle thrown at them.

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 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.

— Busch has two Martinsville wins, including one in 2002 from the 36th starting position, the farthest back a race winner has started there.

— Earnhardt has five consecutive top-five finishes at Martinsville, the longest top-five streak among any active driver.

— 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.”