The two-way home run race that fans don't want to end, the one that has catapulted baseball to new heights of interest, enters its last stage tonight. So does the three-way race for the National League wild-card spot. But both races could be extended beyond Sunday, the final day of the regular-season schedule, creating an even more frantic finish to one of the most scintillating seasons ever.

The unprecedented home run contest between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa has rocketed baseball back into the minds and hearts of people who had abandoned it after the strike that shattered an exciting 1994 season.Results of The New York Times/CBS News poll showed on Thursday that fans have followed this season with far greater interest than at any time since the poll was first conducted in 1985. Furthermore, Major League Baseball will set a total attendance record with about 70.5 million fans seeing games this season.

McGwire and Sosa are tied with a record 65 home runs, four more than any player had ever hit before in a major league season. McGwire has three games left against the Expos while Sosa and the Chicago Cubs play three times in Houston.

The games in Houston take on additional significance because the Cubs are scrapping for the NL wild-card spot with the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants. The Mets and the Cubs are tied for the lead, with the Giants a game behind.

If the 162-game schedule is not enough to decide that spot in the playoffs, the teams will play off for it Monday and, in the event of a three-way tie, Tuesday. The Cubs, at most, would play one such playoff game, meaning Sosa would have that extra game in which to add to his home run total.

Sosa and McGwire will not have a playoff if they end the season tied. They would, in that event, go into the record book, replacing Roger Maris and his 61, as a tandem. Both players have said they would welcome such a development.

"This has been a unique, really superb year in so many ways," Commissioner Bud Selig said, "topped off obviously by the home run chase, not only the record-breaking part of it, but I have to give Sosa and McGwire great credit. They not only broke these records, but they've done it with such grace and dignity. That, I think, is the thing that has captivated people."

The interest generated by the home run race was reflected in the poll conducted Tuesday and Wednesday. Of the 960 adults who participated, 22 percent said they were very interested in watching or following Major League Baseball, up from 15 percent a year ago, and 41 percent were somewhat interested, up from 27 percent. Conversely, 38 percent said they were not at all interested, down from 58 percent.

The poll marked the first time since the question was first asked in 1985 that the "interested" number exceeded 60 percent.

Media coverage of McGwire and Sosa has been intense and widespread. Sosa has helped by sticking close to McGwire, who had been the hitter given the best chance to break the record, which he did Sept. 8. Sosa has led only once (48-47), and that briefly during a game between their teams Aug. 19, but each time McGwire has pulled away, the Dominican hero has caught up.

Major league attendance for the season was 68,795,359 as of Thursday. The record is 70,256,459 in 1993. This season's attendance, of course, is aided by the addition of Arizona and Tampa Bay. The per-game average of 29,287, up 3.6 percent from last season and 15.9 percent from the post-strike 1995 season, is the third highest in major league history. The record, set in 1994, is 31,612.