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Kurt Busch driving the hottest car at Fontana

He wins the pole for Sunday's race. Earnhardt, chasing him for final spot, qualifies in seventh.

September 01, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Kurt Busch, doing his best to keep Dale Earnhardt Jr. from grabbing his spot in NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup playoff, on Friday won the pole position for Sunday's Cup race at California Speedway.

Busch captured the first starting spot for the second consecutive year with a qualifying lap of 182.399 mph on a sizzling hot day at the two-mile Fontana oval in his No. 2 Penske Racing South Dodge.

Jimmie Johnson, the reigning Cup champion, was second at 182.394 mph in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Defending race winner Kasey Kahne of Gillett Evernham Motorsports qualified third in the 43-car field and Busch teammate Ryan Newman was fourth.

It was Busch's first pole of the year but his third at California Speedway, which was built by his car owner Roger Penske in the mid-1990s. Busch also won a Cup race here in 2003.

"It's great to be on the pole. But we've got the big picture going on right now, too, making sure we're locked into the Chase," Busch said.

The top 12 NASCAR drivers in points after 26 races qualify for the 10-race Chase to determine the title winner. Sunday night's event is the 25th race and the final one to decide the Chase lineup is next weekend at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.

Busch, with recent victories at Pocono and Michigan, is 12th in points -- and holds the last spot in the Chase -- but is being chased by Earnhardt in the 13th spot.

Earnhardt, the sport's most popular driver, qualified a fairly strong seventh for Sunday's Sharp Aquos 500, which starts at 5 p.m. and will end under the lights.

But even before Busch won the pole, Earnhardt acknowledged that his Chase hopes are slim because he's a distant 158 points behind Busch.

"Kurt's been running good and if he keeps up as usual it would be tough for us to do anything about it," he said. But if Busch has problems Sunday, "we'll capitalize on that and make it exciting at Richmond," Earnhardt said.

"We've had a great opportunity this year and I felt really confident that we would make the Chase hands down," he said. "We just weren't able to finish some races, and that really cost us a lot."

The temperature soared to 108 degrees in Fontana before there was partial cloud cover in the afternoon. Kyle Busch, Kurt's younger brother, said it reminded him of their native Las Vegas and that the humidity at last week's race in Bristol, Tenn., was more annoying. "Here, at least you have to be doing something to sweat," Kyle said.

But Gibbs' Denny Hamlin, who qualified ninth, said "it's amazing to me how hot it is, especially in the race car."

Spectators huddled in whatever shade they could find on the 565-acre speedway complex, including in the upper levels of the grandstands on the front straightaway that were shaded by skyboxes. The rest of the 92,000-seat capacity grandstands were empty.

Kyle Busch, who is moving to Joe Gibbs Racing next season, effectively confirmed that Gibbs plans to leave Chevrolet and switch to Toyota race cars in 2008. Busch, 22, said that during his recent negotiations to join the team he was told by Gibbs officials "that they were going to Toyota."

Gibbs and Toyota have not confirmed speculation that they've reached a deal, but Gibbs reportedly plans a news conference Wednesday.

Busch currently drives for Hendrick, but he's being released after this year to make room for Earnhardt in 2008. Toyota has struggled in its inaugural year in the Cup series, but Busch said "I'm not scared" to drive the Toyota Camry. "I think it will be fun."

"It doesn't matter what we're driving, especially next year" when NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow becomes mandatory, he said, adding that the main difference between teams will be the engines.

Several Cup drivers also are competing in the NASCAR Busch Series race here tonight, the Camping World 300. Hamlin won the pole and Kahne will start next to him on the front row at 7 p.m.

--

james.peltz@latimes.com

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