Qualifying packed a powerful punch
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The gasps rang out in unison from the palm-lined grandstands at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The lineup for one of the most anticipated races in recent NASCAR history had just been set. And Kurt Busch, the 26-year-old hotshot from Las Vegas who's not known for his qualifying prowess, had just won the pole in the final run of the day.
Add to that the shock of seeing Jimmie Johnson, many people's pick to win the Nextel Cup title after four victories in the last five races, slip to 39th on a day he'd like to forget.
The only people more surprised by this turn of events than fans and media were the two drivers themselves, though neither allowed their respective smiles and frowns to show.
Busch, who leads the championship race by 18 points over Johnson and 21 points over Jeff Gordon, was high-fiving people after winning the pole for the most important race in his young career.
Meanwhile, Johnson went slipping and sliding around the 1.5-mile oval and lost a ton of time from his earlier practice laps. His time failed to qualify him for the race, so he had to take a provisional reserved for points leaders, putting him at 39th.
"The car was really, really loose," said a disappointed Johnson, cutting interviews short for only the second time this season. The first was after back-to-back DNFs dropped him to ninth in the standings and 247 points out with only six races left.
Busch was also quite tempered in his reaction. His game face squarely on, he cautioned anyone against making assumptions for Sunday based on Friday.
"I hope that people don't get too far ahead of themselves," Busch said. "We can't overlook anything in the pit area. This gives us a great opportunity to start off the race and lead a lap, and it puts us in the right mind set for what we need to do this weekend, which is win.
"There's so much that can go on on Sunday. If I didn't qualify well, I wouldn't be standing here and we'd have that mind set of, 'What do we have to do to get to the front,' and work on our race car and make the setup right tomorrow in tomorrow's practices. This just gives us a better starting spot."
The likelihood of leading the first lap is a very big plus, as leading a lap offers five bonus points that are precious in this tight title bout.
While Busch guardedly smiled as he spoke to reporters in the media center, and while Johnson and team immediately met to ensure that Sunday isn't the disappointment Friday was, Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin all took deep breaths and left the garage area content with where they'll start Sunday.
Gordon, third in the standings, will start fifth on Sunday. He wasn't keen on placing too much emphasis on where he'll start, but he did take confidence in that the team only started preparing for qualifying on Friday morning. In a matter of hours, the 24 crew had Gordon's car set.
"I've really got to hand it to this DuPont team," he said. "That was a great lap for us. When we came here and tested (last month), we didn't run any qualifying set-ups. This will definitely give us a good starting spot."
Junior, who is fourth in the standings and 72 points behind Busch, qualified 16th. For him, it was the perfect starting spot. Not so high as to garner attention; not so low as to cause concern.
"We're fine," he said. "We're going to have a good car on Sunday. But, realistically, we're going to need those guys to have some trouble if we want a shot. But we'll be able to do our part."
Martin, who's in fifth and 82 points out, was the one driver not afraid to let his emotions show. He qualified 11th after posting strong testing and practice speeds at Homestead. Though that starting spot certainly puts him in position to lead laps early, his lips were pursed and his head was shaking after he pulled off the track.
"I'm disgusted with that," he said. "A lot of times I'm quick to blame myself come qualifying time, but I really drove hard. I got a good lap and I was two-tenths slower than in practice. I know the sun is out and it's hot, but it didn't seem to bother [other teams] any. I wish it wouldn't have bothered us.
"I'm real disappointed with that. We were real fast in practice and I certainly don't feel like I dropped the ball out there, but I don't feel like the car did either, so I'm kind of confused. I'm disappointed."
Anyone hoping to get a glimpse into the psyches of the five men who enter Sunday with a chance to win it all were, for the most part, denied.
Busch's smile was soft. Johnson's frustration was curbed. Gordon and Junior were laid back and calm. And though Martin was aggravated, that honestly isn't much of a change for him.
As reporters swarmed the five drivers and fans stalked them from pit road to the garage, their exteriors remained stone-cold.
Busch, visibly trying to contain himself after winning the pole, spoke slowly and deliberately as teams packed up their haulers for the day.
How big is the starting position for Sunday?
His response: "It's just the same as any other Sunday."
Except that no other Sunday has this much on the line. Not that you could tell by looking at any of these guys.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.