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By wire services
Published November 9, 2004
AVONDALE, Ariz. - Kurt Busch continues to be a master of damage control. That's an unfortunate reality for the three drivers with a legitimate chance of catching him in the final two races of the Nextel Cup season.
Busch avoided two potential pitfalls Sunday in finishing a scrambling 10th in the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. He avoided a Jamie McMurray spinout on Lap 128, stopping his No. 97 Ford just before the rear hit the wall. Then on Lap 222, he was able to amble down pit road despite running out of gas. Busch fell back into the low 20s each time but had enough time to recover as crew chief Jimmy Fennig attempted to calm him.
Busch was much more composed afterward when it became apparent he remained atop the standings.
"To race 26 (regular-season) races in a calm, cool position and gain points to position ourselves for the Chase for the Cup was what we intended," Busch said. "Now we have to race these 10 races, no matter what they're worth, whether they're 1,000 miles or a 100-mile race, we continue to strive forward and overcome anything that comes our way. And now we've only got two races to go."
Jeff Gordon began Sunday 72 points behind Busch and pulled within 41 after finishing third.
"We don't mind chipping away at it," Gordon said. "The final outcome is what we're looking for in Homestead. It's tough. I've been in positions where we've been out front pulling away and you just see it being knocked away.
"(Sunday) was a "must finish ahead of those guys' day. We came in saying we have to win. But we finished third and we made gains. It was a good day for us. Anything you can do to break the momentum of the guys in front of you is what you want to do."
Gordon said he expects the high-pitched intensity that spiked the race Sunday to continue through the final two, at least from Dale Earnhardt Jr. (47 points back) and Jimmie Johnson (48).
"On one hand, you've got guys who've got to be careful," he said. "I kind of like the position I'm in right now because (Busch) has to be more cautious than I do. So it's not a bad position to be in. But just like when we led up to Richmond getting into the Chase, it gets intense. Anybody who has a shot at it is going to be on edge and feel more pressure. They're going to be driving aggressive or they're going to be thinking about it too much and make a mistake."
PAY UP: It's easy to be gutsy with the boss when you have just won your first Champ Car title. Tampa resident Sebastien Bourdais had a little fun at team co-owner Paul Newman's expense at a news conference Sunday after his title-clinching win in Mexico City.
"Sebastien was quick from the very beginning, but more than that he gave really marvelous feedback to the crew," said Newman, who co-owns a race team with Carl Haas. "It was pretty quickly decided that he would drive for us if the pay was right. It was. And it's going to get better."
"I don't know. We're going to have to talk about that," Bourdais said, smiling.
PRIVACY: Earnhardt has few private moments outside of his hauler on race weekends, but the lack of crowd control at Phoenix prompted him to use one of his late father's tricks in protest.
Earnhardt trudged from his hauler after the final practice on Saturday, through a throng of fans poised unusually close to team work space and sat on the steps of NASCAR's officials trailer to conduct an autograph session.
The theory: If his team cannot work in its work space, neither will NASCAR.
SPARK PLUGS: Sunday's green-white-checker finish in Phoenix was the second since NASCAR implemented this system midseason. Gordon won in a three-lap shootout at the Brickyard 400. ... Busch is the only driver to manage a top 10 in seven of eight playoff races.
[Last modified November 9, 2004, 00:27:24]