FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) – Time and opportunities are running out for at least half the drivers in NASCAR’s Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.

Going into today’s Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, the eighth of 10 races in this year’s stock car playoffs, five of the 10 eligible drivers are 121 or more points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

“You just have to be real lucky at this point, and nobody wants to have to be real lucky,” said Mark Martin, eighth in the standings, 201 points behind and all but eliminated from contention.

“It all has to line up just right,” said Martin, a four-time series runner-up racing in what will likely be his last full season – and last shot at a title – in NASCAR’s top series.

Besides Martin, the drivers who desperately need a good performance and some major help today to have any shot at the championship include Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch, ranging from 121 to 249 points out of first.

The most likely scenario is that the top five of Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, rookie Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton, bunched within 84 points, will fight it out for the title.

Earnhardt said Friday that he believes a driver needs to be within 20 points of the lead going into the final race to have a real shot at winning it all. Martin, who now considers himself little more than an observer in the title battle, figures you don’t have to be quite that close.

“Ninety (points) would work,” Martin said. “It can work from anywhere within striking distance, but it has to be just right for you.”

Martin pointed to Kurt Busch winning the championship in 2004, the first year of the Chase, by just eight points over Johnson and 16 over Gordon – the closest points battle in NASCAR history.

“Kurt’s wheel came off (during the finale at Homestead) and he couldn’t have steered the car,” Martin explained. “He missed the wall by six inches and he won the championship. It was six inches or less from being fifth in the points, so anything can happen.”

Gordon, a four-time champion, hasn’t given up, despite being a daunting 146 points behind.

“Anything can happen,” said Gordon, who has won at every track at which NASCAR races except for Texas, Phoenix and Homestead – the three tracks remaining on the 2006 schedule.

“I just know the range we are at right now is too far back and we need to close that gap significantly,” he said. “We need to cut it in half, at least, the next two races. That’s the only thing that will give us some excitement and encouragement for Homestead.”

Kenseth, who won the 2003 championship with solid consistency, is back in the same groove this year, while Johnson, with a win and two runner-up finishes in the last three races, is showing signs of pulling off another hot finish like in 2004 when he won four of the final six races.

Those two are the heavy favorites heading into Sunday’s race. But that could change for both with one mechanical failure or one misstep on track.

“Yeah, it’s a crapshoot,” said Kenseth, who will start 36th today, by far the worst among the contenders. “All it takes is one mess-up and you can be in trouble.

“But this team has been pretty good all year, and you just have to go out and race the same way you have been racing. You can’t control your luck, so you have to be on top of everything you can control, and this team has been.”

Johnson got off to a bad start in this year’s Chase. But he has clawed his way back into contention and is just 26 points behind Kenseth and full of confidence going into Sunday’s race.

“I feel like we’re real competitive and we’ve earned our way back into this points battle,” he said. “I feel real strong about the races coming up.”

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