KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) _ Kurt Busch is making no apologies for being in the lead of NASCAR's championship chase.
Busch is 12 points ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Nextel Cup standings entering Sunday's Banquet 400 at Kansas Speedway.
A lot of the focus this week has been on the 25-point penalty handed to Earnhardt for his now-famous slip of the tongue last Sunday at Talladega. But Busch has helped himself tremendously by being the only contender to finish in the top five in each of the first three races of the 10-race title showdown.
``It's something that you don't focus on, but yet you do have it in the back of your mind that you've done the best job in these three races so far,'' Busch said. ``It really is a feather in the crew's hat and the team can feel the different intensity of being the points leader. But it can go away just that quick.''
As for Earnhardt's penalty for using an expletive during a live postrace victory interview, Busch said, ``It's unfortunate. Hopefully, these 25 points won't come into the final factor because we want to beat him on the racetrack.''
Earnhardt's team plans to appeal the points penalty, but no hearing date has been set. Meanwhile, the Chase for the Nextel Cup goes on with seven races remaining.
``It's just a matter of putting 10 races together and we're poised to do that with the tests that we've saved up and the luck that we've had recently,'' Busch said. ``And just being able to be competitive is the biggest key _ to be able to run eighth place at all of these races.
``If you've got a chance to win, do it. If you slide out of the top 10 (in a race), you've got to finish as close to that top 10 as you can.''
Earnhardt, who has top-10 finishes in each of the first three races of the championship chase, has much the same philosophy.
``We've been really testing hard at some places that have given us some trouble, and Kansas is one of them,'' said Earnhardt, 33rd, sixth and 18th in three races on the 1 1/2-mile oval. We tested there last week and it went really well, and I was happy with the car.
``Matt (Kenseth) was there and a bunch of other guys. Nobody said their car was really handling great. We were all kind of struggling with the same things. The cars didn't seem to want to turn, or they were too loose. But we were happy at the end of two days.''
As for trailing Busch at this point, Earnhardt insists there's a lot of racing left.
``It's still anybody's race,'' he said.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon was leading Busch by one point before a late-race fade left him 19th at Talladega and third in the standings, 48 points behind the leader and 50 ahead of fourth-place Mark Martin.
Everyone else in NASCAR's new format has had at least one bad race in the first three and needs some bad runs from the top five to get back into contention.
Kenseth, the reigning series champion, is 137 points behind Busch. Tenth-place Jeremy Mayfield is almost locked out already, 267 back. In between are Tony Stewart, defending race winner Ryan Newman, Elliott Sadler and Jimmie Johnson.
Newman isn't ready to give up with more than halfway to go in the title chase.
``We're still in the thick of things, pointswise,'' he said. ``This team has really clicked when it counted. We know that a couple more wins would catapult us to the top, so that's what we're hoping for right now. If we just keep concentrating on winning some of these last seven races, the points will take care of themselves.''
Busch figures the Kansas race could signal what will happen the rest of the way, with four of the final seven events on 1 1/2-mile tracks.
``We've got Kansas, Charlotte, Atlanta and, of course, Miami (Homestead), so that's where you have to be the most competitive,'' Busch said. ``I believe Kansas and Charlotte (Oct. 16) are going to set the tone for this championship.''