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Kurt Busch has been doing everything right in his bid for his first Nextel Cup championship. He now has one big hurdle to clear entering today's Ford 400 (1 p.m., Ch. 2, 1340 AM).

He needs to protect a vulnerable 18-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin also within reach. Those three are bunched within 82 points going into the final race of NASCAR's new 10-man, 10-race playoff-style championship.

For any of the five, a matter of a few places in the finishing order of the 400-mile race could make all the difference between winning the title and being an also-ran.

"When you're in this position, it weighs heavily on you," Busch said. "But it's something you dream about as a kid. This has definitely been a fun experience, to be able to compete at this level and have this opportunity on Sunday.

"We are prepared to win on Sunday, and we're prepared to lose as well. But it will be a much sweeter proposition to bring that championship trophy home on Monday morning."

Busch enters the race starting from the pole. He also has a great opportunity to earn the five-point bonuses for leading a single lap and for leading the most laps on the 1 1/2 -mile Homestead-Miami Speedway oval.

The driver trying to give team owner Jack Roush his second straight Cup title also has a psychological advantage. He has shown tremendous resilience in bouncing back from crashes, pit problems and ill-handling cars to go into Sunday with eight top-10 finishes in the nine races since the Chase for the Nextel Cup began.

"It's just a matter of doing the job your team is capable of doing, and we're capable of winning races," he said.

If Busch wins today, it doesn't matter what any of the others do.

Johnson, who enters the finale with four wins in the last five races, was dealt a setback Friday when a shock absorber problem left him 39th in the 43-car field, the worst qualifying effort in his three seasons in NASCAR's top series.

He bounced back strong in practice Saturday, running faster in both sessions than anyone but Greg Biffle, who was second to Busch in qualifying.

"Once we sorted out the problem we had, it was pretty easy to shrug it off and get to work," Johnson said. "We hate we're starting where we are, but we found the problem and we're in good shape."

He certainly isn't giving up on the championship just because of a bad starting position.

"We've blown engines, crashed cars, a lot of crazy things and had to start in the back and have always come back," Johnson said. "I think the first half of the race we're just going to be doing things to get track position, to try to get towards the front and try to be in a safe area if there is an accident, not to be in the middle of a pack. This track has a lot of room to race on, a lot of room to pass."

Gordon, 21 points behind Busch, expects the championship battle to go right to the last lap.

"You can't say any of us want it any more because we all want it really bad," the four-time champion said. "I'm a true believer in what's meant to be is going to happen. Everyone's going to be working hard and everyone is dedicated. Everyone is putting their best race car and best effort out there."

Earnhardt and Martin, who trail the leader by 72 and 82 points, respectively, know it will take more than just a good effort on their part to leap past the others and win the title.

"Me and Mark are both on the backside of the deal," Earnhardt said. "We can just kind of race as hard as we want. There are so many things that have to happen with three guys ahead of us, it will be a struggle and huge luck to win."

Johnson isn't overlooking any of the contenders, though.

"It's such a small margin that, truthfully, it's anybody's championship to win," Johnson said. "You're going to win the championship by racing, staying up front and leading laps, maybe leading the most laps."

Asked if the championship is Busch's to win or lose, Johnson grinned and replied: "I'm going to say it's Kurt's to lose. I want to put pressure on him. I want him to think about it all night long."

In the Busch Series Ford 300 at Homestead on Saturday, Kevin Harvick closed a disappointing season in the series by winning the final event of the year.

Harvick, the 2001 Busch champion, moved to the front and had to hold off Jamie McMurray on several late restarts to lock up his second victory of the year.

Martin Truex Jr. clinched the Busch series title last week at Darlington Raceway, but didn't get to enjoy the official championship ceremony until after he finished eighth at Homestead. He was presented with the trophy and celebrated with car owners Teresa Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A series of cautions bunched the field up a handful of times, giving McMurray a chance to get a jump on Harvick and pass him for the lead.

But he never could, and Harvick got a great start on the final restart with two laps to go and pulled away for the win.

"Our stuff has been off this year. We've had good cars, but we've been off," said Harvick, who won at Las Vegas in March. "It's good to be back in Victory Lane."

Harvick has struggled in both the Busch and Nextel Cup series this season and hasn't won a Cup race since August of 2003. He was also shut out of the 10-race championship hunt.

McMurray, on the other hand, has been on fire in both series. He won the past two races, and has already locked up 11th place in the Cup series and the $1 million bonus that goes with it.

He said he had only one real opportunity to pass Harvick and go for his third consecutive Busch series win.

"With 20 laps to go, I was able to get up on Kevin and get him loose," Harvick said.

Rookie Kyle Busch was third, ending his season tied with Greg Biffle for the series record of five wins in a season. He had hoped to give car owner Rick Hendrick a sixth victory, especially with Hendrick attending a race for the first time since the Oct. 24 plane crash that killed 10 family members and employees.

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