James Madison and William & Mary play today in a critical Atlantic 10 football game in Harrisonburg, Va., and the winner will have the inside track to the conference's automatic berth in the Division I-AA playoffs.

The Dukes, ranked No. 4 in the USA Today/ESPN Division I-AA coaches' top 25 poll, have won six games in a row, including a 20-13 victory over Delaware last week. Dukes senior cornerback Cortez Thompson returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown with 3 minutes 4 seconds left to win the game.

James Madison (8-1, 6-0) has beaten William & Mary (7-2, 5-1) in four of its past five meetings. If the Dukes win again, they'll clinch the playoff berth and at least a share of their first Atlantic 10 championship since 1999.

If the Tribe wins and beats Richmond next week, it will win the playoff berth because of a tiebreaker devised by the conference.

"We want to stay at home in the playoffs the whole way, and that's what this game is about," James Madison Coach Mickey Matthews said.

* AUTO RACING: The contenders for the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship moved to the front of the field without turning a lap at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. Rain washed out qualifying for the Southern 500, forcing NASCAR to set the grid for tomorrow's race by car owner points. That put Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin -- separated by just 104 points -- at the front of the 43-car field.

"That was a heck of a lap for us today," said Busch, who hasn't started from the pole since the season finale at Homestead in 2002. "It was a real good break for us."

Busch leads Gordon by just 41 points with two races remaining in the new, 10-man, 10-race Chase for the Cup playoff-style championship.

* FIGURE SKATING: Chinese favorites Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo won the pairs at the Cup of China in Beijing, while Canadian Jeffrey Buttle took a commanding lead in the men's short program.

Shen and Zhao, two-time world champions, skated a program highlighted by strong jumps and throws. They earned 127.16 points during the free skate, thrilling the audience with triple combination jumps, including a triple salchow and triple loop. They finished with 193.54 points.

* GOLF: Laura Diaz closed with three birdies for a 5-under 67 to take a two-stroke lead after two rounds of the LPGA Tournament of Champions in Mobile, Ala.

Diaz moved to 11-under 133 at the Magnolia Grove's Crossings Course. Heather Daly-Donofrio was alone in second after a second-round 66. Lorena Ochoa had her second straight 68 and is tied with Christina Kim (70) at 136.

* COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Georgia State will join the Colonial Athletic Association next summer, a year earlier than first announced. In May, the school said it would leave the Atlantic Sun Conference in 2006. Now, the move to the CAA has been pushed up to July 1, 2005. . . .

Maryland women's basketball received signed letters-of-intent from Marissa Coleman, a 6-foot-1 guard from St. John's College High School, and Kristi Toliver, a 5-8 point guard from Harrisonburg, Va.

* TENNIS: French Open champion Anastasia Myskina upset Lindsay Davenport, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, in the WTA Championships, which could jeopardize the American's hold on the world's No. 1 ranking.

-- From News Services

and Staff Reports