So far, so good for Busch
That's right -- the two biggest stars in the sport, nearly neck-and-neck, battling for the grand prize.
Kurt Busch? He'd be in third, hoping for a slip-up by the two with only six races to go.
But that's not present day reality. Busch is the one leading, not following, and he's intent on capitalizing on his good fortune that is the new Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Under the new system, which reset the top 10 and placed each driver just five points behind the guy ahead of him, Busch leads the field by 29 points heading into Saturday night's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. His fellow competitors are the ones praying for a hiccup.
"We have a big hole to dig out of because Kurt Busch is doing a phenomenal job," said Elliott Sadler, who sits in fourth, 143 points back.
Last weekend, the hiccup seemed to have struck Busch and his No. 97 team. Busch spun in Turn 2 at Kansas Speedway and appeared set for a rough day. Instead, he recovered to finish sixth. Fuel strategy and a fast car helped him move through the field, and his consistency helped him hold onto the points lead.
"It was a great finish," Busch said. "We rebounded well from the problem and I'm disgusted with myself for making that mistake again -- spinning off of two and luckily not hitting anything, so we survived. We just had the fuel strategy that brought us up to the front."
Out in front of the pack in the points race, Busch said he's focused on this weekend's race in Charlotte. As one of four 1.5-mile tracks among the final 10, Busch said it's going to be another race about fuel strategy and setting up the tires for a fast run at the end.
"These next mile and a halves -- that's going to set the tone, I believe, for this Chase for the Nextel Cup," Busch said.
In Kansas, Busch said he thought his team overachieved with about a 12th-place car, but for Charlotte, the team feels confident they've got a winner.
"This is the same car we brought to the 600," Busch's crew chief Jimmy Fennig said. "Kurt got his best finish at this track in that race, and now with what we've learned in testing here last week we want to go out and top that."
That finish in Charlotte was an 11th-place effort. Busch says he feels like he could nab a top 10 just based on the confidence and passion the team feels right now.
"It's a good start," Busch said of the performances he and his team have delivered in the first four of these 10 races to determine the champion. "It really is a feather in the crew's hat and the team can feel the different intensity of being the points leader, but it can go away just that quick. It's something that you don't focus on, but yet you do have it in the back of your mind that you've done the best job in these three races so far.
|"||Everybody positioned themselves to get into the Nextel Chase for the Cup, but now it's time to go and we've done the best so far. "|
|-- Kurt Busch on leading the Chase|
"Everybody positioned themselves to get into the Nextel Chase for the Cup, but now it's time to go and we've done the best so far."
The most important words in that sentence, of course, being "so far." Busch's 29-point lead over Earnhardt Jr. is the difference between six finishing positions in the next race -- not a comfortable gap, by any means. And lurking 79 points back is a guy everybody knows is capable of winning a few down the stretch.
"There's still a lot of racing left and we're still very close," said four-time champ Gordon. "We haven't lived up to our potential in the first four races of the 'Chase,' yet we're only 79 points behind. We know we're better than that.
"If we start performing like we're capable of and things start going our way, we can gain some momentum and make a run at another championship."
But Busch said he isn't going to concern himself with who's in the rear-view right now. He doesn't care what the points race would look like under the old points system, either. All he cares about is the fact that things seem to be clicking at the right time.
"I want to go into the last race with 155-point edge," Busch said, "and that way we won't have to worry about that last race."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.