CONCORD, N.C. (AP) -- Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have all but conceded the Nextel Cup title, while Jeff Burton and Martin Truex Jr. 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 Saturday night's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, nobody else has a shot at the Nextel Cup 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 out.
``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 in the standings.
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 Saturday night's event with a nine-point lead over Johnson, and Clint Bowyer sits in third, 63 points out.
Two-time series champion Tony Stewart is fourth, but fading at 154 points back, and everyone else is 200 or more out. The big deficit that anyone has overcome to win the championship is 156 points that Johnson rallied from last season.
The stark reality of it has forced several drivers to re-evaluate 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 out. ``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 a 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, we have an opportunity to do so,'' 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. We'll see.''
Gordon and Johnson will have to falter soon, and there's no reason to believe it will happen at Lowe's.
Johnson is incredible at the suburban Charlotte track, which is sponsored by his primary sponsor and considered his personal playground. He's 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 Saturday night 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,'' he 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.
``We still have a lot of racing left. I think when you get two, three, four races out here in a few more weeks, it will become more clear as the Chase wears on. But as of now, if I were in an 11th or 12th spot, I still wouldn't give up.''
Gordon has four wins here, including the first of his career back in 1994. But he's struggled on the track of late, and hasn't finished higher than 24th in his last five starts. That includes a 41st-place finish here in May.
But Gordon, who starts fourth on Saturday night, agrees with his teammate in that its too soon to cross off the competition.
``You never know what can happen, anything is possible,'' he said. ``Guys can get caught up in wrecks, engines can blow, parts can fail, tires can blow. If you could possibly figure out that those things were not going to happen and then ask me that, then I would give you a number.
``But I think still anything and anybody that's mathematically still in it, still has a shot.''