By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Whoever takes control early in the 10-race playoff and has few things go wrong likely will win the title.
If Kurt Busch knows one thing the other nine drivers competing for the Nextel Cup championship do not, it's how to hold firm without crushing the most precious of commodities in the last 10 races of the season: momentum.
It sent Busch hurtling to a title last year in the first season of the Chase for the Championship format. He won at New Hampshire, site of today's Sylvania 300, then produced five top fives and eight top 10s in the next nine races.
Last fall, momentum sent Tony Stewart's hopes for a second title spinning when he got caught in a wreck at the same track. Momentum helped Jimmie Johnson build a massive points lead during the regular season, then cost him the top spot by the time the Chase had started. It seemed to doom his hopes when he raced poorly in the Chase, then helped him win four of the last six races and finish second in the finale at Homestead. But he fell eight points short of Busch in the closest finish in NASCAR history.
Someone will capture a little of that magical force today. Cresting at the right time again is Busch, a two-time Loudon winner, a runner-up there in the summer and a winner at Richmond last week.
"You can come in as a seventh-place guy in points and leave with the points lead if you have that good of a day," Busch said, referring to his points jump after last fall's New Hampshire race. "And if you're able to jump that far in points, nobody can take that momentum from you, and you run with it the whole time."
Various drivers have ridden a wave of stellar performances this season. Greg Biffle won four of his five races in a nine-week span to grab the points lead for a week in midsummer. Stewart won five times in seven races from Sonoma to Watkins Glen and still is racing well, having finished no worse than eighth in three months and assuming the points lead entering the first of 10 Chase races.
"If you're hitting your stride, you're all about the Chase starting," said Johnson, who led the standings for 16 of 26 weeks but stumbled into the Chase in fourth place. "If you're downhill fighting your way up, you'd want a couple of weeks before the Chase starts so you can sort out your own stuff. We didn't get off to a good start last year and almost won it so we'll just have to work hard and see what happens."
Doug Richert, Biffle's crew chief, said momentum often can help overcome inconveniences both under and beyond a team's control.
"Don't put yourself in a situation you can't get out of, and everything has got to go right," he said. "We were running good at the beginning of the year, and we were also in a position where everything was going right. We didn't have flats at the wrong time, or we didn't get in a wreck just at the wrong time. Everything clicked and we were able to follow through, and we were able to win. We've had some good runs.
"We had a good run going at Bristol - had a flat tire. Happy to be third, recovering from that. We had a car that was so loose at California, he could hardly drive it, we got us some track position and came home second - happy with that because it could have been a lot worse."
Momentum also can be found at Michigan International Speedway, where Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli discovered the Nextel Cup equivalent of cold fusion during a test session this summer. Whatever shock package, aerodynamic tweak or calculus equation they found, the push Stewart's crew created confounds Jack Roush, who has all five of his cars in the Chase but still is struggling to solve the No. 20 Chevrolet riddle.
"There's one guy that's got one thing technically that we don't understand that has beat us a couple of times this year," Roush said.
Conventional wisdom before the first Chase suggested that a driver had to win once, then points-race patiently to capture the title. Busch's strategy was more aggressive, crew chief Jimmy Fennig said.
"(Winning at New Hampshire) didn't affect our strategy, but it was great to start with a win as far as momentum goes," he said. "If you go in with that mind-set and you finish second or third, you accumulate those points."
After winning at Loudon, Busch dodged several dangerous wrecks and potential season-killing incidents - including a wheel coming off at Homestead. A 42nd-place finish at Atlanta with four races left because of engine failure was the only blip.
"(A race you win) is one less race for things to go wrong," Busch said. "You can look at it from many different directions, and for us, we wanted to capitalize on the first eight races and after Atlanta we were forced into making sure we didn't have anything go wrong after that. We wanted to attack for as many races as we could, and then you have to play it cool, because you can only go for so long."
Translation: ride that momentum as far as you can. Sometimes it goes all the way to Homestead.