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A Busch on tonight#8217;s pole

FONTANA, Calif. — Kurt Busch, the other Busch this season with kid brother Kyle making such waves with his own NASCAR championship fight, continued his pole-winning campaign yesterday by taking the top starting spot for Sunday’s Sony 500 at 184.540 mph in a Roger Penske Dodge yesterday afternoon.

&uot;When you’ve got horsepower under the hood, you can really go down these straights,&uot; Kurt Busch said.

But even if Kurt Busch wins this race, he might be little more than an asterisk for the weekend, because the 2004 tour champ is already out of this year’s NASAR title chase.

The focus instead will likely be on the 10 men expected to make the playoffs, which open in Loudon, N.H., Sept. 17, and the one guy, in 11th, still struggling to make the cut.

That, and the amazing heat – it’s expected to hit 104 degrees here today.

And one of the best championship stories this season is hotshot rookie Denny Hamlin, who has been as impressive this year as teammate Tony Stewart was in his own rookie year.

Whether he makes NASCAR’s title chase or not in these next eight days, Hamlin says he’s had a heck of a ride this season for a rookie from southside Richmond.

&uot;We’re already exceeding expectations,&uot; Hamlin, winner in the Daytona Shootout, in Mexico City, and twice at Pocono, said. &uot;Anything that happens from here on out is icing on the cake. Even if we fall completely on our faces from here on out, we still had a great season. Things went really well for us, and we were in the chase battle, and that’s all I could have hoped for at the beginning of the season – to have a chance to get in the chase. I figured I’d probably be 13th or 14th , with a far outside chance.

&uot;Anything that happens from here on out is a bonus&uot;.

So if he makes the chase, he can just take it easy? &uot;That was the approach I thought I was going to take,&uot; Hamlin said. &uot;But like Mike (Ford, his crew chief) says – ‘We’re not racing for 10th. We’re going to race for the championship, just like the rest of these guys.’.

&uot;We’ve proven over these last six weeks that we’ve got as good a shot as anybody&uot;.

That’s six straight top-10 finishes, including a second tour win at Pocono.

&uot;The race car doesn’t know how much experience I have behind the wheel … and obviously inside that race car I feel very comfortable,&uot; Hamlin said.

&uot;I never would have dreamed I would be racing top-10. Whether we’re in or out, it’s been a great ride, I’ve enjoyed it.

&uot;But racing around the guys I’ve been racing for points, I realize I’ve still got a lot to learn. They do things a little bit different. I’m just a dumb rookie who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Whether we make the chase or not, I feel I’ve learned a lot this year and my learning curve has really been cut down, racing with the veterans.

&uot;Patience is the big things I’ve learned. At the beginning of the year I was looking to get every spot I could just as soon as I could. Now things are a lot more relaxed. That’s why the racing was what it was at Bristol. Guys were taking it easy, because we’re in such a tight points battle we can’t afford to have trouble.

&uot;We missed out on a lot of points obviously at Loudon (in July) where we ran out of gas (while battling for the win). But we still finished sixth. And at Indy, where we were very strong, running third with 10 or 15 to go and then having motor problems&uot;.

After this race, Hamlin goes home to Richmond, where he finished a tight second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in May.

&uot;It definitely feels like there is more pressure when I go to Richmond,&uot; Hamlin said. &uot;I definitely get stressed out, and I have a lot of appearances leading up to Richmond … and now it just makes it double worse now I’ve got all this going on.

&uot;But this is what I signed up for. So I wouldn’t trade my position for anybody’s. Except maybe Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth&uot;.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum is 11th- place Kasey Kahne. Though he’s just 111 points behind Hamlin, unless Kahne rallies in the next few days, Dr. Z – Daimler-Chrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche – will have no one to cheer for in this season’s championship chase. And that would be the first time since Dodge returned to NASCAR that it hasn’t had a team in the top-10 down the stretch.

Kahne’s game plan for Sunday’s race is, &uot;Be smart and get what we can. The track is going to be slippery. We’ll hope we’re in the top-five and lead laps. Next weekend at Richmond we’ll have to be aggressive.

&uot;It would be nice if we could cut the deficit (90 points out of 10th) in half, or maybe even more here. That would help a lot going into Richmond. We’ve finished well the past two weeks and yet lost points&uot;.

Kahne started the year hot, winning four races, but then slumped. &uot;Just had a couple of bad months,&uot; he said. &uot;Two months of racing where we didn’t finish in the top-20. Whether I hit the wall at Indy or we had a problem at Pocono or just finished 23rd because we didn’t have a car better than that, that’s just where it’s at.

&uot;It’s hard to look back; you just have to look forward.

&uot;I know 90 points is a lot to make up in two weeks,&uot; Kahne said. &uot;That gets you thinking. But I’m not really worried. The pressure will be here all weekend, a lot of pressure. But I don’t want to lose any sleep over it and hurt myself for being tired&uot;.

In any other season the championship race would already be down to a two-man fight between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, both 300 points up on their rivals. But NASCAR’s made-for-TV chase format will zero in on the top 10 in points after Richmond for a 10-race shootout.

Johnson, who could easily be going for his fourth title this season instead of his first, comes here atop the standings. &uot;We’ve done a good job this year of keeping focused and not letting things break us down,&uot; Johnson said, fresh back from an Alaskan fishing trip with soon-to-be-teammate Casey Mears.

&uot;It seems so long ago that we had problems at Daytona (and a four-week suspension for crew chief Chad Knaus). That was really tough. But we learned from it; we made the most of it, and won two races in the process. When I look back, I don’t have any negative feelings about it. It made our team stronger.

&uot;Momentum is important, and we want to stay in that pressure situation. We want to compete for this regular-season championship. I really want to challenge Matt Kenseth in these next two races and see what this team is capable of. It’s a great opportunity for us to see what’s going to take place in the chase. We want to keep the pressure on&uot;.

And already locked into the chase, Johnson can go wide-open here. &uot;We have a shot at winning here,&uot; he said. &uot;We want to run good at Richmond too, though it’s not one of our best tracks.

&uot;This year we’re a lot more zeroed in on the package we want to run.

&uot;Last year we were on the fence … and the year before we got really aggressive&uot;.

Neither of those approaches worked.

&uot;This year we’re more prepared for the chase,&uot; Johnson said.

Mike Mulhern can be reached at mmulhern@wsjournal.com.