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How important is it to finish in the top 10 in the Chase opener? Well, only once in the Chase era has a driver finished worse than sixth in the fall race at Loudon and gone on to win the championship (Johnson, in 2006, when he came in 39th at the 1.058-mile oval). "You can't win the Chase at New Hampshire," says Biffle, "but you sure can lose it there."
Busch has three wins in 19 career starts at Loudon, and he finished third at the track on June 27. He'll be piloting a brand new car equipped with all the latest and greatest technology from Penske Racing. But what really makes Busch so formidable on flat tracks such as New Hampshire (those with little or no banking in the corners) is that he can control a loose race car (meaning the rear end slides up the track through the corners) as expertly as anyone in the sport.
"Kurt can just manhandle a car that isn't handling well," says Chris Osborne, the spotter for Penske's number 2 team, who spotted for Johnson from 2002 through '05. "The difference between Kurt and Jimmie is that Kurt is a bit more of a hard charger and Jimmie is a little more conservative. There are people in this sport who are left scratching their heads wondering how in the world Kurt pulls off some of the moves he does on the track. And this team is a lot like Jimmie's past championship teams. You can feel it building, and Kurt is our biggest strength. He can start dead last, and we know that we're in no way out of it."
Osborne believes Johnson will be the team's strongest opponent for the title. And Johnson did, in fact, win the June race at New Hampshire. The schedule sets up as beautifully for Johnson as it does for Busch, because his 10 favorite tracks on the Cup circuit just happen to fall in the Chase. This, as much as anything, has been the secret to Johnson's binge of four straight titles.
• Roll off the hauler fast at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 3.
It's an article of faith in the garage: To win the championship, a driver must perform well on the intermediate-length tracks. These 1.5-to-two-mile venues form the backbone of the Chase, hosting five of the 10 playoff races. This is why Kansas, the third race of the Chase and the first on an intermediate track, often provides the most telling moments of the fall.
Now more than at any other time in the Chase era, it's exceedingly difficult for teams to find and gain speed by making setup adjustments during prerace practice sessions. No one in the garage can say precisely why. "You're basically going to be as good as you are all weekend on that very first lap of the very first practice session," says Hamlin. "It's frustrating because you feel almost a little helpless, but that's just the way it is."
This is why on the Friday before the Kansas race everyone in the sport—owners, crew chiefs, pit crews, engineers—will closely monitor the speed chart as the first practice begins at noon CDT. The 2010 champion likely will be in the top three after the first lap.
Busch has fared well on the intermediate tracks this season. In nine starts at these venues he has two wins and six top 10s, which is one more top 10 than Johnson. When Busch won the championship in 2004 he finished sixth at Kansas—perhaps the most overlooked moment of his title run.
Busch also has a secret weapon: Steve Addington, who is widely regarded on the Cup scene as one of the top five crew chiefs in the sport. When he was calling the pit shots for Busch's younger brother, Kyle, in 2008 and '09, Addington won more races (12) than any crew chief other than Chad Knaus, who heads up Johnson's number 48 team.