NASCAR drivers Kurt Busch, left, and Jeff Gordon talk in the garage area during practice for the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., in this Oct. 30, 2004 photo.
AP Photo/Glenn Smith
DARLINGTON, S.C. Kurt Busch has learned a lot during his four years in NASCAR's top series. He just hopes that knowledge is enough to carry him and his Roush Racing team to a Nextel Cup championship.
''That's something that I noticed back in 2002 when we had a championship run put together, that I lacked some of the leadership skills,'' said Busch, who won three of the last five races that season but wound up a distant third in the points behind Tony Stewart and Mark Martin.
''I wasn't what you could call a cheerleader, helping motivate the guys after a bad day or even a bad pit stop, and not knowing my role 100 percent,'' he said. ''With this change, understanding the new point structure, having more years of development, learning from (crew chief) Jimmy Fennig and experiencing the mistakes that I've made in the past, it's helped me be a better person and play more of a quarterback role.''
The more mature 26-year-old Busch has put it all together in the first eight races of NASCAR's new 10-man, 10-race Chase for the Cup championship. Heading into the Southern 500 on Sunday at Darlington Raceway, Busch has top-10 finishes in seven of the eight races and leads a tight four-man title battle.
He goes into the penultimate race of the season 41 points ahead of four-time champion and six-time Darlington winner Jeff Gordon, 47 in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 48 ahead of Jimmie Johnson. Martin, a four-time series runner-up, remains a long-shot contender, trailing the leader by 102 points.
Although he hasn't been this close to a Cup championship before, Busch does have some experience racing for a title.
He won the championship in 1999 in NASCAR's Southwest Series, then finished second in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series before moving up.
It looked for a while as if Busch would run off and hide in the Chase, starting with a win at New Hampshire and adding finishes no worse than sixth in the next five races. But an engine failure in Atlanta and a so-so 10th-place run last Sunday in Phoenix brought him back to the field.
Still, Busch remains very calm and focused heading into Darlington, saying the pressure is on the other guys to catch him.
''That's experience,'' he said, smiling. ''I'm just trying to keep an even keel on everything, the way I approach it. You don't want to get too excited about things, but yet you have to stay on top of the wheel for the entire race.''
Gordon, who has been through the intense pressure of a championship battle many times, says he isn't going to wait around for Busch to make a mistake or have another problem.
''We're second in the points with only two races left, so we need to be aggressive,'' Gordon said. ''The pressure will keep building and it will become more intense. This is one track where you'd better block all that out.
''If you don't, this track will bite you in a second.''
NASCAR's oldest superspeedway remains one of the toughest on the circuit with its tight, 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval made even narrower by the installation last year of energy absorbing SAFER barriers.
Making it even tougher this week is the fact that the race will start in daylight and finish under the lights for the first time.
''We were able to run some laps at night during an exhibition here in August,'' Gordon said. ''It will be interesting to see how the setting sun affects driver vision during the closing stages of the race, and how shadows from the wall affect depth perception.
''Day or night, though, one thing doesn't change. You must respect the track.''
Busch said he is looking forward to the challenge.
''That'll be another fun element to add into Darlington, knowing that you're always on the ragged edge already, and then we'll probably spend two or maybe three hours staring at the sun going down the back straightaway,'' he said. ''There are going to be so many new and unique elements that I'm really looking forward to the race and being able to adapt to all of those changes and being the first guy that adapts to it the best.''
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