FONTANA, Calif. - Kurt Busch is doing his own version of scoreboard watching as NASCAR's "regular season" winds to a close.
"This is big-picture time," Busch said. "I guess I've looked at just about every mathematical scenario. The bottom line is that if we are 165 [points] ahead of 13th place after [today], then I think we are guaranteed a spot [in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship]."
Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, goes into the Sharp Aquos 500 at California Speedway holding down the 12th and final spot in the Chase, expanded this season from 10 to 12 drivers.
With only this event and next Saturday night's race at Richmond before the start of the 10-race playoff, Busch - NASCAR's hottest driver over the past two months - isn't quite ready to breath easy yet.
But, with a 157-point edge over 13th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 175 points over 14th-place Ryan Newman, his Penske Racing teammate, Busch would probably need a blowup of disastrous proportions to fall out of the Chase. More likely, he will continue to pressure the two drivers just ahead of him - Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, both within 9 points.
"It really all has to do with your finish among the other cars that are around you," Busch said. "Yet, if you just go out there and worry about your own program and shoot for a top-10 finish, that means that there is only one race left for things to go back or go right."
Busch, who will start from the pole for the first time this season, can get a 5-point bonus for leading at least one lap by just staying out front for the first lap.
Earnhardt was hoping to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team his late father founded, with a championship as a parting gift. He will need a near-miracle to even get into the Chase, thanks mostly to four engine failures this season. His only hope may be a combination of Busch having the same kind of problem today combined with his own top-10 finish.
"If Kurt keeps up as he is, it will be hard for us to do anything about it," Earnhardt said. "If he has an unfortunate engine failure or something like that, maybe we can capitalize on that. It would make it exciting at Richmond."
It appears that would be the only thing that would make the 26th race of the season more than just an opportunity for someone to add one more 10-point bonus to the seeding for the Chase. Under this year's format, each win leading up to the Chase is worth an extra 10 points for the start of the playoff.
The way Busch has been running, it's not out of the question that he could wind up matching the four wins by both series points leader Jeff Gordon and reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
"We've just been checking them off as we have been going here with a nice steady pace for a while," Busch said. "We've had great cars that have allowed us to gain maximum points. All along, we just have the mentality of maintaining a solid finish."
All of the crew chiefs will be hard-pressed to make the right calls today, with the race starting at 5 p.m. PDT, with temperatures forecast for the low 100s, and finishing after dark with the track cooling.
Burton takes Busch race
Jeff Burton turned a late pit stop and fresh tires into a NASCAR Busch Series win last night at California Speedway. He passed Kyle Busch for the lead just eight
laps from the end of the Camping World 300 and pulled away to win by 2.859 seconds -- about 12 lengths -- as Busch barely held off pole-winner Denny Hamlin for second place.