Kurt Busch looks to clinch spot in Chase tonight

FONTANA, Calif. -- Kurt Busch remained cool despite temperatures in the low 100s at California Speedway the past two days, with the humidity higher than what a Southern Nevada native is accustomed.

The Las Vegas native and his No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge team were hot before they arrived in Southern California for the Sharp Aquos 500, which will start at 5 p.m. today.

He and his team have been the best in the Nextel Cup Series for the past two months by finishing 11th or better in the last seven races, including wins in two of the last four.

Crew chief Pat Tryson, who joined Busch in June, has been the spark and brought the same car Busch drove to victory four weeks ago at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa.

Their momentum continued Friday when Busch won the pole -- his first of the year -- by edging Jimmie Johnson by one-thousandth of a second.

Busch, 29, can clinch a spot tonight in the Chase for the Championship and make a run for his second series title.

After tonight, only Saturday's event in Richmond, Va., will be left before the 12-man field is set. Busch leads No. 13 Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 158 points and is 175 ahead of Penske teammate Ryan Newman.

"This is big-picture time," Busch said. "I guess I've looked at just about every mathematical scenario.

"If we are 165 ahead of 13th place after (this race), then I think we are guaranteed a spot. All we have to do is start the car at Richmond, and that'll be great for us, especially with the pressure that has been on us the last few weeks."

If Busch finishes 13th or better tonight, he will clinch a spot in the Chase, even if Earnhardt wins tonight and Saturday.

"We just need a solid top-10 run and to stay out of trouble," Busch said.

Earnhardt knows he's on the cusp of missing the Chase for the second straight year.

"If Kurt keeps up as he is, it will be hard for us to do anything about it," Earnhardt said.

"If he has an unfortunate engine failure or something like that, maybe we can capitalize on that."

Although Busch is 12th in points, he wouldn't be last if the Chase standings were reset today.

In addition to expanding the field by two to 12 this year, drivers start the playoff with 10 bonus points for each race victory.

That would put Busch behind Jeff Gordon and Johnson (four wins each), Tony Stewart (three) and tied with Carl Edwards.