LOUDON, N.H. Kurt Busch understands the importance of a good start to NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.
Busch won the opening race of the inaugural Chase a year ago, a victory that gave him momentum. He went on with the help of eight more top-10 finishes in the next nine races to win the title, beating Jimmie Johnson by eight points.
This year, Busch and Johnson are joined in the 10-man Chase by series leader Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman heading into the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway on Sunday.
''It's very important to get a good start,'' Busch said as his team prepared his No. 97 Roush Racing Ford for the 317.4-mile race on the 1.058-mile oval.
Having said that, though, Busch cautioned that Sunday's results are not likely to determine which of the contenders will win the 2005 title.
''You just have to make sure you do things as close to normal as you can and not get too excited because it is 10 races,'' Busch said. ''If you don't get off to a great start it's not the end of it, but you're working from behind the whole time and it's much harder to do that.''
Stewart and Mayfield know just how hard that can be. Both were part of last year's Chase and never recovered after getting caught up in crashes at NHIS. Stewart wound up 39th and Mayfield 38th in the race.
''For us, it was the end of it last year,'' Stewart said. ''But that was more because we really needed everything to go right for us to be a contender. We just were not that good last year.
''This year, we're in pretty good shape,'' added Stewart, who goes into Sunday's race riding a string of 12 straight top-10 finishes, including a win here in July. ''So, if we don't have a perfect week right off the bat, we feel like we've got some time to catch up.
''Besides, you could win the first race and be inept in the next nine. Psychologically, you hope you have a good week. But if it's not that way, you go to the next one. You've got nine more to figure it out.''
A year ago, Mayfield had to win at Richmond in the final event of the 26-race regular season just to make it into the Chase. This time, Mayfield is seventh. He has been one of the most consistent drivers this season, making it easily if quietly into the playoff.
While last year's New Hampshire race made him very aware of how quickly things can go downhill, Mayfield says you can't go into it simply trying to avoid trouble.
''You've got to go out every lap and get all you can in this situation,'' he said. ''There's no laying back, no being cautious, no being safe. You've got to run hard every week. If you're going to win the championship, you've got to run up front.''
Edwards, who joins Roush Racing teammates Busch, Biffle, Martin and Kenseth in the Chase, is the kid of the group, on the way to completing his first full season in Cup at age 26. But he understands what must be done.
''This race will be huge,'' Edwards said. ''It's 10 percent of our championship effort right here.
''It's important to get off to a good start for about a million reasons. Team morale is a big deal, and there's the mathematical reason. You need to have a good points race. Kurt Busch did it last year and it got him going.
''If we've got race-winning power, we're going to go win the race,'' Edwards added. ''If we don't, we're going to just not wreck.''
Told his young teammate's philosophy, longtime NASCAR star Martin, a four-time series runner-up, nodded and said, ''He's got that right.''
Stewart wins pole; Gordon and Earnhardt close behind
LOUDON, N.H. Tony Stewart struck just the right note Saturday for a guy hoping to get off to the right start in NASCAR's 10-man, 10-race championship playoff, winning the Nextel Cup pole at New Hampshire International Speedway.
''It's a perfect place to start when you're in the Chase for the championship,'' Stewart said after driving his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet to the fastest lap of 131.143 mph on the 1.058-mile oval.
''We've done everything we needed to do so far this weekend,'' the series leader said. ''The car was really good in race trim and now we're on the pole. Now we've got everybody else in the top 10 scratching their heads wondering what we're doing.''
Stewart, who won at NHIS in July, was easily the best of the championship contenders in qualifying. Among the others in the Chase, Matt Kenseth was fourth, Rusty Wallace seventh, Jeremy Mayfield eighth and Jimmie Johnson 10th.
The rest of the Chase drivers were farther back, with reigning series champion Kurt Busch 12th, Ryan Newman 13th, Mark Martin 15th, Carl Edwards 24th and Greg Biffle 26th.
Edwards, in his first full season in Cup, was disappointed but not concerned about his qualifying effort.
''I felt like I did the best I could do and the team did an awesome job,'' he said. ''We just took a shot in the dark there. I'm real happy to get (the Chase) underway. I'd like to start the race right now.''
Biffle, second in the standings behind Stewart heading into Sunday's Sylvania 300, was a bit more worried about starting so far back in the 43-car field.
''It was unfortunate,'' he said. ''It got out from under us in that second lap. Now we're going to suffer really bad. It's going to be a fight.''
Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's two biggest stars, failed to make the Chase and go into the final 10 events of 2005 with new crew chiefs and hoping to build momentum for next season.
Both got off to a strong start, with Gordon, who missed the Chase by 73 points, second to Stewart at 131.075 and Earnhardt, who has not been a contender through most of the season, right behind at 130.777.
It was the first official action for Gordon with 26-year-old Steve Letarte, his former car chief, now handling the crew chief duties. Letarte replaced veteran Robbie Loomis, who stepped down and will leave the Hendrick team for an administrative job with Petty Enterprises at the end of the season.
''I thought Steve did a great job just by asking a lot of questions about what the car was doing,'' Gordon said. ''The communication was good. He made some great calls. I hate that we missed (the pole) by just that slight amount, but being on the front row right now is almost as good as being on the pole.''
Earnhardt got back with former car chief Tony Eury Jr. this week, with Eury moving from crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip to the same position with Earnhardt's No. 8 Chevy.
''We just struggled all year, so this is good,'' Earnhardt said. ''I just appreciate Tony Jr. coming to help me out the rest of the year and next year. That was only a qualifying run, but it was a definite improvement.
''Hopefully, we can get a couple of wins the rest of the season.''
Asked how it felt to be back with Eury, who is also his cousin, Earnhardt grinned and said, ''It fell right back into place for me and maybe for him, too. We've been working around each other all year long, just not on the same team. And I think we've got a bit more respect for each other than we did before.''
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