HOMESTEAD, Fla. - While this year's NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship still may be unsettled, Kurt Busch momentarily diverted the attention to next season by winning the pole for the Ford 400.
Tony Stewart and Mark Martin came to the season-finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway to settle the points race, but Busch had an agenda of his own: to lock up third place in the standings and solidify his position as the series front-runner for 2003.
A lap of 154.365 mph put his car on the pole for Sunday's main event (1 p.m., NBC-Ch. 26) and it continued his incredible late-season surge that's taken him from 12th to third place in the standings in the last nine races.
Busch's stretch run has included two wins and seven top-7 finishes in his last nine starts.
"It is somewhat of a shame to know that we've rallied and gained so many points in the last quarter," Busch said. "But all good things must come to an end. I wasn't in position to win a championship in February of 2002. February 2003 feels a heck of a lot better. Third in points is where we're at right now and that would be a great victory if we can keep that on Sunday. We're not sad and we're not happy to see the end of the year."
Stewart, who qualified sixth, needs to finish no worse than 22nd in Sunday's race to clinch the title. He can also win if Martin, who will line up 34th, fails to finish in the top 14.
The race for third place in the standings is far more compelling. Five drivers are separated by just 23 points from third-to-seventh in the standings, and the difference between third and seventh in postseason awards is $500,000.
Jimmie Johnson, who's fourth in the rankings, qualified 16th; fifth-place Rusty Wallace qualified 18th; sixth-place Jeff Gordon used a provisional exemption for the first time in his Winston Cup career to start 37th; and seventh-place Ryan Newman qualified 15th.
Although he's been strong on race day, qualifying has been a problem for Busch all year. He was eighth-fastest in the practice session leading up to time trials, but his Roush Racing team squeezed another 2 mph out of the car with some changes.
"I don't know where (the pole speed) came from," Busch said. "Fridays have been the worst day for me."
Friday's effort was Busch's first pole of the season.
TRUCK CHAMPION: Mike Bliss finished fifth in Friday's Ford 200 for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and that was good enough to clinch the championship.
Teammate Ron Hornaday, the series' winningest driver who was making a one-race appearance with Bliss, led the final 18 laps to beat Ted Musgrave by 200 yards.
Rick Crawford wound up second in the point standings, followed by Musgrave in third.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.