LOUDON, N.H. (AP) – Kurt Busch’s bid for an unprecedented third straight New Hampshire International Speedway victory may ultimately just be practice for a championship run.

Busch will be using Sunday’s New England 300 as a testing session for when The Magic Mile hosts the first of 10 races in NASCAR’s Chase for the Nextel Cup in September.

“This is a track where our team feels it is vital to have a good run to kick off the 10-race stretch if you are in contention for the Cup,” Busch said.

He used the race here last July to prepare for the Sylvania 300, and wound up winning both. The victory in September moved Busch from seventh to second in the standings, and he parlayed that into his first series championship.

“The setup that we’ve had here will definitely help us run well, but you always have to be adapting and changing to keep up with the current track conditions,” he said.

Busch needs another productive run to cement his 10th-place standing or move up. Only the top 10 drivers – and those within 400 points of the leader after the 26th race – will make the NASCAR playoffs.

It’s unlikely that the 11th-place driver will be within 400 points, however, so Busch will be racing those around him rather than the leaderboard. He’s 376 points behind pacesetter Jimmie Johnson, but just 30 out of sixth place and 39 ahead of former series champion Dale Jarrett in 11th with eight races left before the cut.

Sure, Busch will be points racing, but he also has a sense of history.

“We’re definitely going to go for three in a row,” he said. “Then we definitely have to focus on the bigger picture.”

Busch knows that drivers who sweep at a certain track can sometimes fall victim to their success, while the competition looks to improve and make changes. He knows his team won’t let that happen.

“You have to be comfortable at a track to run well, but the confidence comes from having a good crew and setup on your race car,” Busch said. “That’s the equation to get to victory lane.

“The main objective, obviously, is to see how this new tire and spoiler combination feels … so we know what to do in September.”

On Sunday, Johnson figures to be Busch’s biggest obstacle. They have combined to win the last four New Hampshire races, with Johnson sweeping here in 2003.

Johnson will try to win with a car that’s never been raced, but he didn’t sound worried after testing here last week.

“We had a good test session trying to advance our cars and find the next trick to find some more speed for our cars, especially on the flat tracks,” he said.

Like Busch, Johnson remains mindful of the points, but he has a considerable cushion that virtually assures him a spot in the elite 10.

“To be in the fortunate position that we are this year, it looks like we’re pretty much going to make the cut,” he said.

While Johnson has no intention of forfeiting a chance for his 17th career victory, he knows he can’t take too many chances Sunday.

“We go up to win, but with our eyes on the championship we really want to get in the rhythm of the top five,” he said. “That’s a big goal.”

Should he hold any part of his 108-point lead in the standings, Johnson will be the top seed after the race Sept. 10 in Richmond, Va. That would put him in front when the elite field of 10 is reset at intervals of five points starting in Loudon on Sept. 18.

Other formidable contenders Sunday should be Greg Biffle, who leads the circuit with five victories and is second in points, and former New Hampshire winner Tony Stewart. His two-race winning streak ended last Sunday when he finished fifth in Joliet, Ill. Stewart is third in the standings, 43 points behind Biffle.


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