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GORDON STILL IN DRIVER'S SEAT

So far, nobody has blinked in the tense three-way Winston Cup championship battle.

With only three races remaining going into today's ACDelco 400 at North Carolina Motor Speedway (12:30 p.m., TNN; Radio 1520), Jeff Gordon has not been able to shake Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett.

Gordon leads Martin by 110 points and Jarrett by 155.

All three qualified among the top six in the 43-car lineup for today's 400-mile event, and each has had some success on Rockingham's 1.017-mile oval.

Gordon has won two of the last five races here, although both those victories came in the spring. Martin won the fall race in 1989, while Jarrett, who never has won at Rockingham, goes into today's race with three straight runner-up finishes at The Rock.

"We've got to go out there and try to win the race and try to run up front," said Gordon, who will start sixth. "I can't think about the points. I don't have that luxury.

"If we had a huge lead right now, maybe I would think about the points. But I don't. The margin I have is very small, especially when you have guys like Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett, as fast and hard as they run, chasing you. Those guys are going out there to win."

But Gordon, who won the championship in 1995 and finished second to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte last year, admits he would much rather be out front now than trying to play catch up.

"I like having the points lead," Gordon said. "We're still . . . running well and we know those guys have to catch us. But we know we can't afford to make mistakes.

"If you get off your game plan, that's when you start to make mistakes. Those guys have to step it up. They've got to . . . win so they can make up the points on us. We're running in the top five and top 10 every weekend, so it's going to be interesting."

On Saturday, Martin's fourth consecutive victory at North Carolina Motor Speedway in the AC Delco 200 made him the winningest driver in the history of NASCAR's Busch Grand National Series.

Martin, strictly a part-timer on the BGN circuit, took the lead from Ricky Craven 13 laps from the end of a very competitive 197-lap race, then pulled away to record his 32nd Busch Series win. That broke the record he shared with Jack Ingram, whose last victory came in 1987.

Tempers flare in Spain

JEREZ, Spain -- With the world drivers' championship at stake, tempers flared Saturday as Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve battled for, and won, front-row positions for today's European Grand Prix (7:30 a.m., ESPN 2).

Competition was so intense that three drivers -- Villeneuve, Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen -- drove the 2.751-mile course in the exact same time to the thousandth of a second: 1 minute, 21.072 seconds.

"When I looked at the computer, I couldn't believe it was exactly the same time," Schumacher said. "It proves the competition is on a very high level. It can't be closer than that."

Because Villeneuve was the first to turn his lap in 121.072, he got the pole position for today's race, with Schumacher alongside on the front row and Frentzen on the inside position on the second row.

Being at the front of the pack of the 22 racers at the start of today's season-ending race is critical because passing is difficult on Jerez's curve-filled track.

As the Formula One drivers practiced for the qualifying run, Schumacher's Ferrari teammate, Eddie Irvine, blocked Villeneuve, as he has threatened to do during the race.

When the two racers pulled into their pit areas, Villeneuve yanked off his helmet and fireproof face mask, stalked over to the British driver, who was still in his fire-red car, put his face inches from his tormentor's and told him to back off.

"I told him to stop (playing) the idiot, basically," Villeneuve said. "It was the fourth time this weekend he waited for me and slowed me down. We all know he's a clown, but there's no point in playing like that.

"It's a psychological game. It just shows to what point Eddie is prepared to go to help Michael win the championship."

Irvine, who blocked Villeneuve two weeks ago in the Japan Grand Prix, allowing Schumacher to win, accused the French-Canadian of getting into a froth over nothing.

"This just shows he is getting wound up," Irvine said, insisting he did not know Villeneuve had been trying to pass him on Saturday. "I didn't see him in the mirror."

Countdown east

Even as the Winston Cup teams finish the regular season grind, several are also preparing for a postseason trip to Japan for an exhibition race on Nov. 23.

Thirty teams and more than 450 people will make the trip the week after this season ends at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Each is shipping a 40-foot container with a car and other necessary equipment.

The containers, which must be ready this week, will go by truck to Atlanta, then be put on a double-stacked flatbed railroad car for the trip to Long Beach, Calif.

From there, they will be loaded onto a cargo ship, the California Luna, on Oct. 30. The ship is scheduled to arrive at Nagoya, Japan, on Nov. 12. After clearing customs, they will be taken to Suzuka by train and then to the track by truck.

Penske Racing South, whose driver, Rusty Wallace, won the inaugural exhibition event last November, was well prepared for this year's effort.

"It's a lot easier than it was last year," said Kenny Sapper, a Penske mechanic. "It took only a couple of days for us to load this (container). It took about eight of us, and we got it done fairly quickly.

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