- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Kurt Busch has every reason to be excited heading to Bristol Motor Speedway.
After all, what's not to like for a driver who has won four of the last five Cup events at the .533-mile, high-banked bullring?
And Saturday night's Sharpie 500 couldn't come at a better time for a driver looking to secure a berth in the Chase For The Nextel Cup. Sixth in points entering the weekend, Busch has a 123-point cushion over 11th-place Jeremy Mayfield, the first driver currently on the outside looking in at the 10-race championship playoff.
Still, Busch knows things can change in an instant at Bristol, which is why he isn't considering himself a lock for the playoffs.
"We're one of those teams that can't afford a bad day," Busch said. "We've got some cushion in case we miss the setup [so] that we'll still run competitively enough to gain points. But Bristol is by no means a track that we're going to miss the setup on."
That sounds like a rather assured statement, but Busch has the numbers to back it up. He's led at least 45 laps in his last five starts at Bristol, including 100 or more in his three straight wins.
The amazing thing is that Busch doesn't dominate on his way to victory lane as much as steadily march to the front of the pack. He's never led before halfway in any of his Bristol wins, with the earliest he's taken the lead coming on the 359th lap in March 2003.
The same winning Ford Taurus will be underneath Busch this weekend and he'll have lots of momentum in his favor with top-10 finishes in his last three starts, including a sixth-place run at Michigan.
That finish lifted Busch to sixth in points, 109 points behind Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth and 45 ahead of seventh-place Elliott Sadler. All in all, Busch would gladly change places with Kenseth.
"I look at the top five and I'd say they're locked in with their opportunities to gain points or to lose points," Busch says. "The guys that are sixth through 10th, obviously, have to race hard. And the guys that are 11th through 15th have to have everything go their way as well as somebody have a bad day in front of them."
If it sounds odd to be reading about the chase for the final spot, trying being one of the drivers involved. The Nextel Cup Series is in uncharted territory and Busch is among those eager to see how it all plays out.
"It normally never comes down to looking around at the 11th or 15th-place teams around a Bristol event and that's gonna make what we forecasted about this excitement on the new point system so strenuous about this race because anything can happen at Bristol," he says. "You can wind up in the inside fence with just one small little bump, or when somebody checks up in front of you and you pop a hole in the radiator. The mechanical side of things is gonna have to be the most important aspect of this event -- just being able to finish.
"That's the mindset that I take into all the Bristol races -- just trying to focus on making sure that I take care of the 97 Ford and dodge all the different wrecks out on the race track. If I'm in a position to win at the end, we'll go for it but I go there just to survive."
At the moment, Busch is surviving at Bristol far better than anyone else in the field. Drivers have gone on better winning streaks at the track, but it can be argued that there weren't as many competitive cars in the field when Darrell Waltrip was winning seven straight races from 1981 through the spring race in '84.
A win this weekend would match Cale Yarborough for the second longest winning streak at the track. Busch, though, makes it clear that it won't be easy.
"It's a daunting task to say the least. Each time I go there I don't expect to win and I don't expect to run bad," Busch says. "It's just a matter of controlling the most that you can within your car. [But] yeah, it's difficult to forecast when somebody spins and wrecks in front of you which way to go because you have to make those split decisions so quickly.
"Just being able to absorb the information out in front of you is key at Bristol, whether it's a car you've got to pass or whether it's a different stage in the race. If it's early in the race, you're more conservative. If it's later in the race and somebody is faster than you, it is difficult to keep a car behind you because they can move you out of the way. So the philosophy for me is to do the best job that I can and by doing so it allows me to focus and stay ahead of the game."
Busch will get the first chance to show that he's still on top of his game during qualifying. The fields at Bristol are among the most tightly bunched of the season, meaning even the slightest bobble can ruin a good lap and leave a driver starting in the back.
"You make one little slip and you're chasing the car," Busch says. "You're hustling as hard as you can and you end up just a half-a-tenth slower than the leader, but it felt as if you lost a full second. It's very difficult to qualify at Bristol.
"It is important to start up front. It isn't everything, but it does give you a good pit selection when it comes time to picking pits and understanding what you've got to do for the rest of the day. When you qualify poorly, you've got to work your way through the pack and take risks as far as two tires or even staying out, but when you get to start up front you can make sure that you take four tires each time and have a nice solid race to where you're not stressing yourself."
Owner Jack Roush didn't have much to stress about at Michigan, as all five of his cars finished in the top 10. It's only the second time Roush has done that, as his team has varied between four and five full-time teams.
It's no easy task and one that keeps the veteran owner on his toes at all times.
"I liken myself to the nursery rhyme about the old lady who lives in a shoe, she had so many children she didn't know what to do," Roush says. "It's really tough for me to bear the experience that I have, which has been considerable coming up on 40 years of being involved in professional racing. To bring that history to bear and at the same time not get in the way of the guys as they do what is current and what is timely going forward, I try to bring forward a democratic process that brings out the best that everybody has and challenges the things that are not sound that would get them in trouble.
"… It's an awesome thing that I'm a part of now. As a youngster trying to race my own little drag race cars and all when I got started as a teenager and seeing what it's grown up to be is just a wonderful thing. I feel very lucky."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
He's won four of the last five races overall at Bristol, but Kurt Busch says he hopes "just to survive."