Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup -- Round 5: Lowe's Motor Speedway * Chase leader Busch seeking fifth top 10 in as many Chase races * Kenseth to break into modern-era top 10 this weekend for most consecutive weeks among the top 10 in the ...
Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup -- Round 5: Lowe's Motor Speedway
* Chase leader Busch seeking fifth top 10 in as many Chase races
* Kenseth to break into modern-era top 10 this weekend for most consecutive weeks among the top 10 in the championship
* Lowe's Motor Speedway could give Johnson a Chase booster shot
Roush Racing's Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Ford) struggled with bouts of inconsistency throughout the first 26 races of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season, but he appears to have reserved his most consistent tear of the entire year for the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup.
Busch will be seeking his fifth top-10 performance in as many rounds of the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup when he heads to Lowe's Motor Speedway for Saturday night's UAW-GM Quality 500. The current run marks only the second time this season he has reeled off four top-10 finishes in a row and only the third time he has put together more than three straight. The other four-race stretch came in August when he posted consecutive top 10s at Indy (10th), Watkins Glen (10th), Michigan (6th) and Bristol (8th).
All of his finishes in the first four rounds of the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup have been among the top six, beginning with a victory in Round 1 at New Hampshire. He followed with fifth-place efforts at Dover and Talladega, respectively, and added a sixth this past weekend at Kansas. He also has led laps in all four Chase events -- earning a five-point bonus in each for leading a lap -- and that is a season-best streak.
"It's a matter of what it takes to get 10 races put together consistently and running competitively," said Busch, who has led the Chase for the last two weeks and has not trailed the leader by more than a point over the four weeks. "You can't just go out there and finish eighth. You have to lead laps. We've led laps in every event so far and you have to gain as many points as you possibly can. ... Now it's a matter of executing every race perfectly and being able to bounce back quickly from mistakes and not drag your feet on making decisions."
He, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), are the only two Chase drivers to post top-10 finishes in each of the first four rounds and that has resulted in the duo being ranked first and second, respectively, as the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup format reaches the midway point at Charlotte. Busch leads Earnhardt Jr. by 29 points.
"It's a feather in the crew's hat to know that we're a championship contender," Busch said. "Each race there is going to be guys that bump up and there is going to be guys that slide back. If we continue on the pace that we're on, we're going to be okay and set a nice pace for people to shoot for. There are so many cars (10) involved in this that you worry about your own program."
Busch will look to protect his lead this weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he has not had much success in his career. He has yet to post a top-10 finish in eight career starts and has an average finishing position of 19.625. However, his best performance at the 1.5-mile oval came earlier this season when he finished 11th in the Coca-Cola 600. He also has finished among the top 15 in three of his last four visits.
"These mile-and-a-half tracks are so important in the 'Chase' because there are so many of them (four) in these final races," Busch said. "Lowe's Motor Speedway is a track where we need to have another consistent run. We tested here last week during the evening in conditions that should be similar to what we see here Saturday evening, so we feel good about what we've learned."
The four drivers behind him -- Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford) and Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford) -- are all within 150 points and can mathematically wrestle the points lead away from Busch at Charlotte. Even sixth-place Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet), who trails by 173 points, is optimistic, and is keenly aware that there is plenty of racing remaining to determine the series champion.
"We're close enough right now in the points that theoretically we could be as high as second in points after Charlotte," Stewart said. "Six weeks to go is a long time. It's not out of reach by any means. Anything can happen in this series from week to week. Realistically, you have to take it one day at a time. Something that happens on Friday can directly impact what happens to you on Sunday. So literally, you have to take these next six weeks one day at a time until the end of the season."
Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DeWalt Power Tools Ford), who has been situated among the top 10 in the championship for 65 consecutive weeks, will move among the modern-era's best in that category following Saturday night's UAW-GM Quality 500. Kenseth will push his streak to 66 weeks in a row following Charlotte and that will tie him for 10th in modern-era history with Sterling Marlin. He will be able to move as high as sole possession of ninth this season on the list, surpassing the 67-week runs of Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt following Atlanta. Kenseth, the defending series champion, began his streak last season when he was ranked sixth following a third-place finish in the February event at Rockingham. The modern-era record is 174 consecutive weeks, which was set by Earnhardt from 1986-1992.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been a strong racer under the lights, with 11 top-10 finishes in his last 14 events in the evening. This season, he has finished among the top six in five of the six night events, including a pair of victories (May 15 at Richmond and Aug. 28 at Bristol).
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
• Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), ninth in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, can expect a much-needed boost from Lowe's Motor Speedway. He enters this weekend with a streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes at Lowe's, including top-three efforts in his last three visits. He has a pair of Coca-Cola 600 victories, including a dominating win from the pole in May when he led a race-high 334 laps, sandwiching a third-place finish in this event a year ago. He also has led 801 laps in those last five starts.
• Tony Stewart, 173 points behind leader Kurt Busch and sixth in the Chase, has been consistently strong at Lowe's with eight top-10 finishes in 11 career starts. Of those eight, six have been among the top five including a victory in this event a year ago. He enters this weekend with seven top-10 efforts in his last eight starts at Lowe's, including a ninth in his most recent appearance in May. He also has started among the top 10 in his last six visits.
• Jeff Gordon, third in the Chase and 79 points behind Busch, has posted 14 top-10 finishes in 23 career starts, including a dozen of those among the top five. He is a four-time winner at Lowe's, with his most recent coming in this event in 1999. He owns seven Bud Poles and has an average starting position of 7.347. He has four top-10 finishes in his last five visits, the only miss being a 30th earlier this season.
• Mark Martin, fifth in the Chase and 150 points behind Busch, leads all Chase drivers at Lowe's Motor Speedway in career top fives (15), top 10s (19), laps led (1,116) and is tied for wins (4) with Gordon. Martin, however, has not posted a top-10 effort since May of 2002 when he won the Coca-Cola 600. Martin: "I think that just about everybody knows it is one of - and just maybe - my favorite track to race. It's a real driver's kind of track, where handling is key and you better find a way to go fast in the corners. Hopefully we'll be able get a grip on it and make a solid run at the win. We've been to victory lane four times there in the past and I'd love to get back in the 'Chase' with a win there this Saturday night."
Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rank first and second, respectively, in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup as a result of being the only Chase drivers to record top-10 finishes in the first four events. No others have more than two. ... Elliott Sadler is the only Chase driver who has yet to suffer a DNF (Did Not Finish) this season and has a run of 35 consecutive races running at the finish dating to last year. His last DNF was caused by an accident in last season's UAW-GM Quality 500 that resulted in a 43rd-place finish. ... Sadler made up the most ground this past weekend as his fourth-place finish at Kansas improved his position four slots to No. 4. The jump was the largest in one week since the Chase began. ... The victory by Joe Nemechek (No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet) marked the first time in four rounds that a Chase driver did not win the event. Busch won at New Hampshire, Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge) at Dover and Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega.
• "To be honest, there's only one guy I'm looking at and that's whoever is leading the points that week. The only number that matters is the difference between us. It doesn't matter if we're 40th in points at 150 back or second in points at 150 back, you've still got to gain those 150 points to get in the lead. It's not really the physical numbers of how many people you've got to pass to get there; it's realistically how many points you have to gain on the guy who's leading to get there." -- Tony Stewart.
• "I really like the focus of our team. I'm really proud of the way we've handled adversity all year. Whether or not we win the championship, I know this is a championship-caliber team." -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
• "We haven't changed our strategy so far this season since the (Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup) 'playoffs' began. We are here to win races and have nothing to lose. With 143 points separating us from first, we are going to have to get as many points as we possibly can but those three other guys are going to be tough." -- Elliott Sadler.
What: UAW-GM Quality 500 (Round 5 of the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup/Race No. 31 of the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season.)
Where: Lowe's Motor Speedway, Concord, N.C.
When: Saturday, Oct. 16, 7 p.m. ET.
TV: NBC, 7 p.m. ET.
Radio: PRN/XM Satellite.
Posted awards: $4,956,541.
Race length: 500 miles/334 laps.
Track layout: 1.5-mile banked paved oval.
2003 winner: Tony Stewart.
2003 polesitter: Ryan Newman.
Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings: 1. Kurt Busch, 5685; 2. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 5656 (-29); 3. Jeff Gordon, 5606 (-79); 4. Elliott Sadler, 5542 (-143); 5. Mark Martin, 5535 (-150); 6. Tony Stewart, 5512 (-173); 7. Matt Kenseth, 5505 (-180); 8. Ryan Newman, 5453 (-232); 9. Jimmie Johnson, 5438 (-247); 10. Jeremy Mayfield, 5428 (-257).