CONCORD, N.C. - Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have all but conceded the Nextel Cup title, while Jeff Burton and Martin Truex are pretty close to waving white flags.
Only four races into this Chase for the Championship and the realization is setting in: If Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson don't struggle in tonight's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, nobody else has a shot at the title.
"I know it probably won't happen, but it would be nice if Jimmie and Jeff quit sharing notes, started to hate each other, and wrecked each other on the racetrack. It would really help the rest of us out," said Carl Edwards, sixth in the standings - 205 points behind.
"I have a feeling they're going to keep plugging away and they're going to be tough to beat no matter what."
It's fitting that Gordon, the four-time series champion, and Johnson, the defending series champion, are at the top of the leaderboard. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates combined to win 10 races during the regular season and Gordon built a lead of more than 300 points.
But it was all jumbled back together when the Chase began last month, and everyone had high hopes for an intense 10-race push to the title. It was on course for it, too, as the top six drivers were separated by a mere 18 points after two events.
Then a bizarre race in Kansas jumbled the standings, and last week's 1-2 finish by Gordon and Johnson blew them right open. Gordon heads into tonight's event with a 9-point lead over Johnson, and Clint Bowyer sits in third, 63 points back.
Two-time series champion Tony Stewart is fourth, but fading at 154 points back, and everyone else is 200 or more out. The biggest deficit anyone has overcome to win the championship is the 156 points that Johnson rallied from last season.
The reality of it has forced drivers to reevaluate their goals. Instead of the title, they are now looking to salvage decent finishes.
"We don't feel the pressure of being part of the championship battle - at least not right now," said Hamlin, who is ninth - 262 points back. "Our goal is to get back into the top five. If we do that, we've still had a very successful year."
After wrecking out at Talladega last week, Busch declared his chances over. Back-to-back accidents had dropped him from 10 points out of the lead two weeks ago to 260 behind.
He's softened his stance this week, though, but knows he'll need a ton of help to get back in it.
"I think there is still a chance there," Busch said. "But it will be really, really hard the way Jeff and Jimmie are running week in and week out and them leading the points."
Gordon and Johnson will have to falter soon, and there's no reason to believe it will happen at Lowe's. Johnson has scored five wins here in 12 starts, including four in a row.
Although he's not won at Lowe's in three races, he starts second tonight in his attempt to get back to Victory Lane.
He knows how good he is at this track, and he knows how hard it is to climb back into the title hunt. Still, he's not ready to eliminate anyone from contention.
"I think with 12 guys, the chances are more difficult to come back from as far back," Johnson said. "But I think that it's still possible and anything can happen. I don't think that anybody is really out yet but, unfortunately, when you're in that position and you're in a hole, you need a lot of guys to have problems."
Burton came from the back of the field last night to win the crash-filled NASCAR Busch Series race at Lowe's. The Nextel Cup star had a fast car, but was overshadowed for much of the race by points leader Edwards and pole-winner Greg Biffle, who swapped the lead several times before both went out in multicar accidents just seven laps apart.