Busch the man to beat for NASCAR title

Posted: Sunday, November 21, 2004

HOMESTEAD, Fla. Kurt Busch has been doing everything right in his bid for his first Nextel Cup championship. He now has one big hurdle to clear entering Sunday's Ford 400.

He needs to protect a vulnerable 18-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin also within reach. Those three are bunched within 82 points going into the final race of the10-man, 10-race playoff-style championship.

For any of the five, a few places in the finishing order of the 400-mile race could make all the difference between winning the title and being an also-ran.

''When you're in this position, it weighs heavily on you,'' Busch said. ''But it's something you dream about as a kid. This has definitely been a fun experience, to be able to compete at this level and have this opportunity on Sunday. We are prepared to win on Sunday, and we're prepared to lose as well. But it will be a much sweeter proposition to bring that championship trophy home on Monday morning.''

Busch enters the race starting from the pole. He also has a great opportunity to earn the five-point bonuses for leading a single lap and for leading the most laps on the 1 1/2-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway oval. The driver trying to give team owner Jack Roush his second straight Cup title also has a psychological edge. He has shown tremendous resilience in bouncing back from crashes, pit problems and ill-handling cars to go into Sunday with eight top-10 finishes in the nine races since the Chase for the Nextel Cup began.

''It's just a matter of doing the job your team is capable of doing, and we're capable of winning races,'' he said.

If Busch wins Sunday, it doesn't matter what any of the others do.

Johnson, who enters the finale with four wins in the last five races, was dealt a setback Friday when a shock absorber problem left him 39th in the 43-car field, the worst qualifying effort in his three seasons in NASCAR's top series.

He bounced back strong in practice Saturday, running faster in both sessions than anyone but Greg Biffle, who was second to Busch in qualifying.

''Once we sorted out the problem we had, it was pretty easy to shrug it off and get to work,'' Johnson said. ''We hate we're starting where we are, but we found the problem and we're in good shape.''

He certainly isn't giving up on the championship just because of a bad starting position.

''We've blown engines, crashed cars, a lot of crazy things and had to start in the back and have always come back,'' Johnson said. ''I think the first half of the race we're just going to be doing things to get track position, to try to get towards the front and try to be in a safe area if there is an accident, not to be in the middle of a pack. This track has a lot of room to race on, a lot of room to pass.''

Gordon, 21 points behind Busch, expects the championship battle to go right to the last lap.

''You can't say any of us want it any more because we all want it really bad,'' the four-time champion said. ''I'm a true believer in what's meant to be is going to happen. Everyone's gong to be working hard and everyone is dedicated. Everyone is putting their best race car and best effort out there.''

Earnhardt and Martin, who trail the leader by 72 and 82 points, respectively, know it will take more than just a good effort on their part to leap past the others and win the title.

''Me and Mark are both on the backside of the deal,'' Earnhardt said. ''We can just kind of race as hard as we want. There are so many things that have to happen with three guys ahead of us, it will be a struggle and huge luck to win.''

Johnson isn't overlooking any of the contenders, though.

''It's such a small margin that, truthfully, it's anybody's championship to win,'' Johnson said. ''You're going to win the championship by racing, staying up front and leading laps, maybe leading the most laps.''

Asked if the championship is Busch's to win or lose, Johnson grinned and replied: ''I'm going to say it's Kurt's to lose. I want to put pressure on him. I want him to think about it all night long.''

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