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Busch opens big weekend with bang

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Pressure? What pressure?

Kurt Busch, last in the qualifying line and first in the NASCAR
Nextel Cup points, waited out 54 other drivers Friday and then won
the pole for the season-ending Ford 400, which will determine the
2004 champion.

Busch goes into Sunday's race at the front of the closest five-man championship battle in NASCAR history, leading runner-up Jimmie Johnson by just 18 points and with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin all within 82 points of the top spot.

Busch, who isn't known as a good qualifier, grinned and asked:
"Is this Friday? I never knew we could do things like this on Friday.''

It's the second week in a row that the fourth-year Cup driver
will start from the top qualifying spot, though last week's pole
was handed to him as the points leader when time trials were rained
out at Darlington. This one is the first pole Busch has won on the
track since taking the top spot here in November 2002.

He went on to win that race, although the 1½-mile track at
Homestead-Miami Speedway has since been reconfigured, with more
banking in the turns.

Busch turned a lap of 179.319 mph Friday, easily beating out the
179.307 of Greg Biffle for the third pole of his career.

"It was just one of those laps,'' Busch said. "It's really
been a storybook effort so far in this championship chase.''

Johnson came to Homestead -- the last race in NASCAR's new
10-man, 10-race playoff-style championship -- with a ton of
momentum, having won four of the last five races to come from far
off the pace and give himself a shot at the title. But his
qualifying effort Friday took away some of the steam he had built
up.

While the other contenders qualified among the top 16, Johnson
went out early and had a disastrous lap at 175.029. As driver after
driver went around the track, Johnson and his No. 48 team watched
their position drop lower and lower, finally stopping at 39th,
which is where he will start in the 43-car field. It's his worst
qualifying effort since starting 34th on the road course in Sonoma,
Calif., in June.

Johnson didn't wait around to see the final result. His team
covered his car with a tarp and he hurried out of the garage.

"The car was really, really loose,'' was the only thing he said
before walking quickly to his team's hauler.

Four-time series champion Gordon, Johnson's teammate and just 21
points behind Busch, will start fifth Sunday, with fourth-place
Earnhardt, 72 points out, starting 16th and Martin, 82 points
behind the leader, in the 11th spot.

Gordon was pleased with his team's qualifying effort and said he
is looking forward to the race.

"I feel like we need to approach it like we're racing 42 other
guys and go for a win,'' said Gordon, who has finished third the
past two weeks. "This is a track I haven't won at in the Cup
series, but I feel like we've got momentum from the last couple of
weeks.

"I think we're focused on our own program and on what we need
to go out there and do to win the race, instead of focusing on Kurt
Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin. We're going to go out there
and do a better job throughout the race.''