The real chase is for second

FORT WORTH, Texas - Mathematically, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon have a chance to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

The reality with three races left?

"We've still got a great battle going for second in points," Gordon said Friday. "If for some crazy reason those guys had trouble, we've got to make sure we capitalize on them. Our focus right now is winning races and trying to get to second in points."

In his run for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title, Jimmie Johnson's closest pursuers are his Hendrick teammates. But Johnson takes a comfortable 184-point lead over Martin into Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway, with Gordon eight points further back.

Martin, a season runner-up four times, is facing the possibility of being in that spot again. His deficit increased by 66 points after an airborne crash with two laps to go at Talladega last week.

"Definitely no heartbreak whatsoever. But Talladega did rub ... I would rather go down fighting than flipping," Martin said. "I didn't take this job to go try and get a championship trophy. I took this job, you know why, and, doggone, it has worked out pretty good. We have been in a position; it still could happen. The race is still on for the top six positions."

Except Johnson needs to average a 10th-place finish over the last three races, or 11th if he leads at least one lap in every race, to clinch the championship. Johnson has an average finish of 3.4 in the seven Chase races, finishing among the top 10 in all of them.

Both his teammates Sunday will start ahead of Johnson, who qualified 12th. Gordon is the pole-sitter for the first time this season and 68th time in his career. Martin will start seventh.

Johnson finished second at the 1 1/2-mile, high-banked Texas track in April behind Gordon, who broke a 47-race winless drought and found Victory Lane at one of the two active tracks where he had never won. (The other is Homestead, site of the season finale in two weeks).

That is Gordon's only win this season, though he has 17 top-10 finishes in the past 26 races.

The 50-year-old Martin returned to full-time racing this season after landing a ride with Hendrick. He repeatedly has insisted he didn't come back to make up for finishing as a season runner-up twice to Dale Earnhardt and to Gordon and Stewart one time each. He also finished third three times.

In 1989, his second season with Jack Roush, Martin was second in points going into the final race before blowing an engine - he wound up third behind Rusty Wallace and Earnhardt. He led the standings for most of the next season and thought he could beat Earnhardt, a seven-time champion.

"As it turned out, I was wrong. And that was the one that I wanted to win and probably the most of all, when I was young and when it looked like we were going to," Martin said, before chuckling. "Since then, I have learned a lot and I have seen a lot, and I have come to realize that I'm no Dale Earnhardt. My record don't stand up to his, just doesn't. And when you stand me up against Jeff Gordon, it just don't stand up to it. I understand that."

Martin carried the points lead into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, then won at New Hampshire to open the final 10-race stretch. But he slipped behind Johnson after a four-race stretch in which he finished 17th in Charlotte and 28th last week at Talladega after his late crash.

In 755 career starts, Martin has 40 wins and 415 top-10 finishes. The only thing missing is a season title.

"I think he's one of the best out there still today. He's proven that this year," Gordon said. "You put him in solid equipment, look what he can do. He certainly deserves to be a champion. In my opinion, he is. But I know that nobody else is going to consider him that until he has the actual trophy. "

Gordon has four of them, but his last was won in 2001.

And unless something unexpected happens over the next three races, Johnson soon will be a four-time champion himself.