- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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You'd think Kurt Busch would be heading to New Hampshire International Speedway all loosey goosey. After all, as the winner of the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup a year ago, you can make an argument that he has nothing to prove this time around.
You know, the ever enviable, "Been there, won that" approach that his nine fellow competitors can only wish they had working in their favor. But not surprisingly, Busch wants more.
And with those expectations comes pressure. Plenty of it.
"There is a definitely a bit more pressure just because now this team is on the map and what Kurt Busch has done to win races [is on the map]," Busch says. "I like to go and try to win every race and if you can't, you look for those consistent finishes. When you're a team that's won a championship, people look at you and how you did it and what your approach could be. So this team has to still continue to look for new ways to create avenues to win as well as to build competitive race cars.
"There's definitely more pressure that comes in many different ways, whether it's on track with other drivers, whether it's with the role of helping NASCAR continue to grow with the media, and then the sponsors. They'll definitely have a great time advertising the championship, so there are more things and more aggressive things that they do."
Those commitments will eat into Busch's time, time he'd rather spend making sure his Roush Racing Ford will be the best it can be every time out the rest of the way. And there's no better place for Busch to start the Chase than at New Hampshire, where he's won twice -- including the first race of the Chase last year -- and is coming off a second-place finish in July.
When NHIS owner Bob Bahre worked to improve the racing at the track several years ago, it threw a curve at the teams. It's a challenge Busch and crew chief Jimmy Fennig have clearly solved.
"With the bottom groove being different from the main groove in the middle of the racetrack, it seemed as if it turned it into a one-lane race track, but what it did was create a challenge for drivers to put in a setup that could work in both lanes," Busch says. "Since then, the 97 car has had tremendous results. Our team has been able to do well with pit strategy and then to have the setup that can maneuver high, low and pass cars."
Although things worked in Busch's favor last year, he still had plenty of obstacles to overcome, including the wheel that broke loose just as he was hitting pit road in the finale in Homestead, Fla. It appeared to be the moment which ended his title hopes, but instead it was simply a mere speed bump on the way to the championship.
The lessons learned then can only help if, or when, adversity strikes over the next 10 weeks. Busch learned last year not to let his thinking get too far out in front of any situation. That, though, was just one of the things he learned.
"If there's a bad finish, we can't stretch ourselves thin the next week, trying to go for a win and gain points," Busch says. "And then as the leader in the last 10 races, being the points leader you go into the media center after every race and just being prepared for that -- to be able to talk about the day's events and to not let it wear you down week after week. Last year, leading eight out of the 10 weeks, there was ample time to talk to the media. It can burn you out if you're not prepared for it."
So can being at a racetrack seemingly every waking moment. And beyond the 10 races ahead, Busch will spend plenty of extra time testing at various tracks across the country the next few weeks.
It's a situation ripe for burnout, but Busch isn't worried.
"One thing that I've done is put it into a schedule to where we're testing quite a bit this month," Busch says. "It's all race car and the media stuff we'll do and the sponsor things we'll try to keep around the racetrack and keep it to a limited number so that we're not stretched thin during the week.
"Let's just say going to Denver, Colorado, to do an appearance [as an example]. We have to keep things in perspective and we know that we can't be running around the country. We have to stay focused on the race car because that will ultimately win the championship."
At some point, the question will be whether Busch will be back in his No. 97 Ford next year. Having signed a contract with Penske Racing South starting in 2007, Busch is hopeful to work out a way to be released from the final year of his contract with owner Jack Roush.
That, though, will be contingent, in part, on the wishes of Busch's sponsors -- so it's still uncertain exactly which car he'll be driving next year.
At the moment, though, Busch says such concerns are secondary to defending his title.
"Right now it's a time for our team to shine," Busch says. "What we're gonna do this year is something very special and that is to hopefully back up our championship that we got last year. So it's fun to work with the team right now and to see everybody pulling together very strongly because we don't know what 2006 has in store."
Starting at New Hampshire, Busch knows what he'll be facing the rest of this season. His top concern are his four Roush Racing teammates among the nine other drivers in the Chase field.
Although Roush Racing has the odds working in its favor, Busch knows his teammates won't provide the only competition.
"Outside of Roush Racing, we look at Tony Stewart, who has been competitive on all different types of racetracks this year," Busch says. "And the thing of it is, he's done that recently. Early on, I believe up until the first Michigan [race], he was hanging out ninth, 10th in points. He had the look of his teammate, Bobby Labonte, who was struggling a little bit and, boom, he shows up and he's winning races.
"We couldn't even stop him. We won at Pocono [in July], but he just carried that momentum right into Indianapolis and he's been fast. So he's the No. 1 target. And then we look at the guys like Matt Kenseth, who got into the Chase by being very competitive at the perfect point in the season. They were so far behind in points that you never expected them to make it, so they definitely have a roll going right now. Then you have guys like Greg Biffle, who are competitive on all the mile-and-a-half tracks, which are the primary tracks in this Chase."
Busch, though, has been down this road before. Just how much that counts for will be determined over the next 10 weekends.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
Until the curtain falls on the '05 season, Kurt Busch's focus will be on defending his Nextel Cup title, not where he'll be driving next season.