CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Seven of NASCAR's title contenders led the field in the first Chase for the championship event. Four more were inside the top 18.
That left Kurt Busch to bring up the rear, finishing 25th in the Chase opening race at New Hampshire International Speedway. By coming in last among the 12 Chase drivers, Busch plummeted seven spots to the bottom of the standings.
Now he's 102 points behind co-leaders Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon as the Chase heads into Dover International Speedway, a track he's never conquered. But Busch isn't counting himself out of Nextel Cup title contention just yet. In fact, he's already clawed his way out of a hole this deep once before this season.
"It's simply incredible as to where we are now compared to where we were when we left
Dover in June," Busch said.
Busch was in contention for the Chase when he arrived in Dover, but an accident with Tony Stewart during the race was followed by aggressive driving on pit road - he swerved his car toward Stewart's as crew members were trying to service it.
NASCAR ordered Busch off the track. He was credited with a 42nd-place finish, and was later docked 100 points and fined $100,000. The penalty knocked Busch out of Chase contention, but also sparked a turnaround for the rest of his season.
"Maybe in the past it would have made the team or me crumble," he said. "It was a perfect example of, 'We've got to get it in gear and we've got to make this Chase.' It feels like an eternity ago that it did happen because of all the good things that have happened in between."
With the assistance of veteran crew chief Pat Tryson, who joined the team a few days after the penalty, Busch rallied from as low as 16th in the standings and 236 points out of Chase contention. He did it with two victories and seven top-10 finishes in nine races, and was never lower than 11th during the stretch.
That surge made Sunday's struggles in New Hampshire a major surprise for Busch, who many considered the dark horse of this Chase. He won the 2004 title with consistency, and seemed capable of repeating the performance.
But an early engine problem at New Hampshire required multiple stops for a diagnosis. His Penske Racing crew finally determined the issue was in his carburetor, and he had to nurse his underpowered Dodge to the finish.
"Kurt was operating with a two-barrel carburetor, while the other guys were out there armed with four-barrel carburetors," Tryson said. "That's the best way to describe the handicap we faced during much of the race."
Busch can take solace in that a mechanical issue derailed his race, and the No. 2 Dodge was competitive before the issue developed. But he can't afford another rotten race if he plans to challenge for the title.
The top seven spots in Sunday's race were claimed by Chase drivers, a solid start that has tightened the standings - those seven are now separated by 54 points. It's so close, Matt Kenseth knew his seventh-place finish was just mediocre.
"We need to run better than that, obviously, to contend for a championship," he said.
With those kinds of performances from the other Chase drivers, Busch knows another 25th-place finish could submarine his chances. So he'll have to be strong in Dover, where he's winless in 14 starts.
Although he has two top-fives and four top-10s, Busch's fourth place last September is his highest career finish.
But he said his car was good at Dover in June, proving to him that he can master the "Monster Mile."
"We had a top-five car there in the spring race before the incident took us out of the running," he said. "We've made such improvements since then that I'm confident we'll have a car capable of winning this time around."
DEAL NEAR: Mars U.S. was finalizing a deal to use its M&M's brand to sponsor Kyle Busch when he moves to Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
M&M's would replace Interstate Batteries, which has sponsored Gibbs' flagship No. 18 since its 1992 inception.