Tony eury jr., the car chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., stood on the front step of his team's hauler and shook his head in disappointment, his dream season slipping away. It had been a rough Sunday afternoon for Eury and Earnhardt at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway--where a pall had fallen over the track with reports that a plane owned by Hendrick Motorsports had crashed in rural Virginia, killing all 10 on board (box)--and Eury was forced to watch the final laps of the Subway 500 from the team's hauler. While Little E's mangled Chevrolet, which he had crashed on Lap 467 of 500, was being packed up, Eury saw his day go from bad to awful as Kurt Busch, the points leader, blazed to a fifth-place finish to take a commanding lead in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
"I've been focused on these final 10 races since January," said Busch, 26, last Friday. "I'm not saying we didn't try our best the first 26 races, but everything we worked on during the season--our setups, our motors, our gears--was geared for the final 10."
The seasonlong prep work is paying off for Busch. With four races left in the season he holds a 96-point lead over Jeff Gordon and a 125-point lead over Earnhardt, who finished 33rd on Sunday. Jimmie Johnson, the winner of the Subway 500, is in fourth, trailing Busch by 207 points. (The winner of each race gets 180 points, the runner-up 170, third 165 and so on down to 34 points for 43rd place.)
"Kurt is maturing as a racer right before our eyes," says Robbie Loomis, the crew chief for Gordon. "He can still be hotheaded once in a while, but he's been fairly clean this year."
Busch's emergence in his fourth full Cup season has taken the garage by surprise. In his first 13 starts of 2004, he had only one top five finish. But thanks in part to chats with his 45-year-old Roush Racing teammate and mentor Mark Martin (who's fifth in the standings, 17 points behind Johnson), Busch has been a different driver since the green flag dropped on NASCAR's 10-race playoff. He has shown newfound patience, he has avoided accidents as if he knew where they were going to happen, and he has made no serious mistakes. As a result he has reeled off six straight finishes of sixth or better. "Kurt is doing exactly what we did last year," says Mike Calinoff, the spotter for 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth. "He's avoiding trouble and being consistent. That's how you win championships."
On Sunday, Busch, who caused several accidents last season with overaggressive driving, let cars pass him all afternoon rather than risk a points-sapping dustup. This isn't hair-raising racing, but when Busch parked his car on pit road after Sunday's race, he looked juiced. Still strapped into his seat, he pounded his fists on the wheel and said to no one in particular, "Yes! Yes! Yes!"--sounding very much like a man poised to win a championship.