Mishaps have yet to knock Busch from perch

Updated: November 14, 2004, 10:35 PM ET
Associated Press

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Kurt Busch has spun out, blown an engine and raced a car that drove more like a bulldozer. No matter what the circumstances, none has been bad enough to cost him his points lead.

Busch battled an ill-handling car throughout the Southern 500 on Sunday, but still eked out a sixth-place finish. He left Darlington Raceway with his lead intact, and heads into next week's season finale with an 18-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson.

Four drivers are within striking distance of Busch, with 82 points separating first place through fifth.

"This is what we have now with the points structure, a playoff system where everybody is on edge, everybody has to make those split-second decisions and drive the same way,'' Busch said. "There's no real template on what to do because this has never been done before.''

If there's no template, then whatever plan Busch and his Roush Racing team are following should be the model for every team to use.

Everything that could wrong has gone wrong for Busch during NASCAR's new 10-race playoff format.

He spun out and nearly wrecked in Kansas, yet still finished sixth. He wrecked on the first lap at Charlotte, drove through oil and had to slide through the grass to avoid a catastrophic accident, yet still wound up fourth.

The engine on the No. 97 Ford blew up in Atlanta, and he ended up 42nd for his only finish outside the top 10 in a Chase race.

Last week he spun out twice at Phoenix, and seemed headed for a miserable day at Darlington when the handling on his car went away shortly after the start of the race.

As the sun went down, Busch lost sight of the cars around him on the track and ran into Brendan Gaughan to cause fender damage. Still, his crew worked hard all day to keep his car competitive and salvage his spot on top of the standings.

"That's what it takes for any team to win a championship -- to prosper from a horrible day,'' Busch said. "We feel as if we dodged a bullet.''

But there's still more work to do.

The points race between the top five drivers -- Jeff Gordon is 21 back, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 72 back and Mark Martin is 82 out -- is the closest in the modern era. And the 18-point difference between Busch and Johnson is the third closest.

Car owner Jack Roush wants his driver to stay grounded.

"It's his to lose,'' Roush said. "I told everybody that we expect to win and hope to win, but we've got to prepare to lose and how we're going to deal with the frustration of having it all go upside-down after it's been so good for so long.''

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press