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Busch Brothers Cut to the Chase

Kurt and Kyle have done well at Phoenix International Speedway and don't apologize for the aggressive style that bothers some.

April 22, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

AVONDALE, Ariz. — The racing to be included in the "Chase" for NASCAR's Nextel Cup title will be nearly a third over after tonight's Subway Fresh 500, which seems a good time to take, well, stock of the season so far.

The series has 36 races and runs until November. But under the "Chase" format, only the top 10 drivers in points after the first 26 are eligible to run for the championship, determined by how they finish the final 10.

That has put pressure on the teams to score well early, so they can at least make the Chase.

Tonight's race, the eighth of the year, is the first of two annual Cup events on Phoenix International Raceway's one-mile lopsided oval, and the first night race on the Nextel Cup schedule.

As the 43-car field takes to the desert, here's how the season -- and the prospects for tonight's race -- shape up:

Who's hot: The Busch brothers. They're daring, cocky and annoy plenty of other drivers, and they know how to win.

Kurt Busch, 27, won at Bristol this year in his Penske Racing Dodge and is the defending champion of the spring Phoenix race.

Brother Kyle, 20, won the fall race here in 2005 in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is on the pole for tonight's race and stands seventh in Nextel Cup points.

Their aggressiveness rubs some the wrong way, but Kyle Busch is unmoved.

"We're not here to try and lay back and run between 15th and 30th," he said. "We're out here to win races and do the job that our sponsors and car owners want us to do."

However, no driver has ever won at Phoenix from the pole in the 19 Cup races held here.

Honorable mention: Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne.

Stewart, 34, the reigning Cup champion, won at Martinsville in his Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet and is fifth in the points this year. He also knows the Phoenix track, having raced six types of cars here over the years.

Kahne, 26, has won twice this year in his Evernham Motors Dodge, at Atlanta and Texas.

Who's cold: Carl Edwards and Jeremy Mayfield.

Edwards, 26, challenged for the Cup last year and then appeared on countless magazine covers as a favorite to take the title in 2006. Instead, the Ford driver languishes, 22nd in the points.

That's one reason his team owner, Jack Roush, shuffled crew chiefs last week for Edwards and his teammate Jamie McMurray, who's 21st in the points.

Mayfield, 36, also needs a jump-start, having failed to finish in the top 10 this year.

Who's due: Another Roush driver, Greg Biffle. He was strong at California, Atlanta, Bristol and Texas, yet fell victim to car failure and, in Texas, to a shove from former teammate Kurt Busch.

Many expected Biffle, 36, to win the title this year and there is still time. But his misfortune has left him 23rd in the points.

"It's eventually going to turn around for us," he said. "We've got to get ourselves into the top 10."

Biffle starts in the front row tonight, alongside Kyle Busch.

Honorable Mention: Kevin Harvick. The Bakersfield driver has been hovering near the lead all year, with two top-five finishes.

Who's consistent: Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.

Johnson drove his Hendrick Chevies to wins at Daytona and Las Vegas and is the series' points leader with four top-five finishes.

Kenseth is second in the points, won in California in his Roush Ford and won here in 2002.

Whom else to watch in Phoenix: Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Martin, also in the Roush stable, has posted 13 top-10 finishes in 19 races at Phoenix, the most ever. The 47-year-old veteran also won the race in 1993.

Earnhardt, 31, won in Phoenix in 2003 and again in 2004.

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon always bears watching too, especially because he's eighth in the points again this year. But Gordon has never won here.

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