LOUDON, N.H. With seven races left until NASCAR's new championship showdown begins, the road to the Nextel Cup title began for Kurt Busch and remained wide open for injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.
''I believe our chase for the championship started today in the first Loudon race instead of the second Loudon race,'' Busch said after moving from ninth to sixth in the points with his convincing victory in the Siemens 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway on Sunday.
Busch was the only driver to stay with pole-winner Ryan Newman through most of the 300-mile race, passing him twice and, finally, pulling away from Newman and runner-up Jeff Gordon at the end for his second win of the season and 10th of his career.
''My car was just really good on long runs and, once we got to the front, we were able to run real strong in clean air,'' Busch said.
A number of drivers had their eyes on the season standings, with the top 10 drivers, along with any others within 400 points of the lead after the 26th race, competing for the championship over the last 10 races of the season.
Busch's first win since Bristol in March solidified his chances of vying for the title when the ''Chase for the Cup'' begins on the same flat, 1.058-mile New Hampshire oval on Sept. 19.
''I thought we had to apply pressure this week and get our 10 races going right now,'' Busch said.
Earnhardt, with second-degree burns on his legs, neck and chin from a crash a week earlier during a sports car event, held onto second place in the standings after starting the race to get the championship points. He gave up the seat on lap 61 to Martin Truex Jr., the Busch Series points leader making his Cup debut.
Truex hit the wall on lap 141 after bouncing off Ken Schrader's car, but the 24-year-old rookie hung in to finish 31st, two laps behind Busch. Series leader Jimmie Johnson, who swept both New Hampshire races last year, struggled to an 11th-place finish on Sunday but increased his lead over Earnhardt from 105 to 165 points, with Gordon 202 back.
Earnhardt, hoping for an early yellow flag, had to wait 59 laps before Ricky Craven bounced off Elliott Sadler and hit the wall, bringing out the first caution. The ensuing driver change was flawless, with a crewman helping Earnhardt out of the car and Truex sliding in, buckling up and driving away without losing a lap.
''It ain't no fun getting out, I'll tell you that,'' said Earnhardt, sitting behind the pit box in the Dale Earnhardt Inc., team's pit stall and watching Truex drive his No. 8 Chevrolet.
''My injuries really, really hurt bad,'' Earnhardt said, a smile belying his words. ''It's a pain I ain't never felt before.''
Newman led the first 170 laps before Busch got by him on the backstretch. Those two battled at the front for a while, with Newman regaining the top spot on a pit stop on lap 216 only to see Busch drive his Roush Racing Ford to the front again on lap 233, with Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet also getting past Newman's Penske Racing South Dodge.
''I think we were strong the whole time,'' said Newman, who remained in third the rest of the race. ''It's just the 97 (Busch) and 24 (Gordon) got by me. I got loose and washed up the track and let them both get by me.''
Busch said he was happy to see Newman slip up, but hated to see Gordon also get past.
''The one thing about that pass was the door was open for the 24 to come along and I didn't know he was that strong,'' Busch said. ''If there was any other competitor there, you'd still have to beat him, but Gordon is the toughest.''
Gordon, who has three victories here, tried hard to get past Busch, getting close several times on restarts, including one just three laps from the end. But Busch was just too strong, pulling away each time and beating Gordon to the finish line by 0.607 seconds about four car-lengths.
''He's been the guy to beat lately if you want to win,'' Busch said of Gordon, who now has four top-four finishes in a row, including two wins, and five in the last six races.
The four-time Cup champion said he couldn't quite catch Busch.
''I would have had to give him a pretty good nudge to get him out of the way and I think that could have cost us a win or a second place, so I didn't do that,'' Gordon said.
The race was slowed by 12 caution flags for 62 laps. Most of the yellows were brought out by crashes, including two by local favorite Craven, but there were no injuries as the energy-absorbing SAFER barriers got a real workout.
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