Surprise. Underdog. Cinderella story. The media is calling Kurt Busch a lot of things these days but the title he'd prefer is 'Champ.' That one, however, is earned not given, unlike the Nextel Cup points lead he inherited earlier this week.
Busch is the only 'Chase' driver who has finished in the top-five in all three "Chase for the Nextel Cup" races. Those are indeed credentials that would seem worthy of the points lead.
"It's a great feeling," says Busch, who won't allow himself to consider the possibilities just yet. "The team's pumped up about it but we're not trying to get too far ahead of ourselves."
Busch's tempered enthusiasm may be a byproduct of the way he acquired the lead. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s ill-timed expletive, perhaps the most notorious television gaff since the Super Bowl, resulted in a 25-point penalty that dropped him to second and moved Busch to the point.
"Junior didn't mean to do that," says Busch sympathetically. "I mean the celebration in victory lane you always have the adrenaline flowing and sometimes you say things in a fashion where sometimes you don't know what you're saying, it just slips off the tongue."
That slip of the tongue though has put Busch in command with just seven races remaining. And while Busch understands Lady Luck's role in this year's championship equation, he doesn't want to rely on her.
"We've got the points lead but we need to race for the championship out on the racetrack," Busch explained. "We can't expect to have things like that happen to give us the points lead."
As if there weren't already enough incentive to race hard, Busch knows doing so is the only way to avoid potential criticism. The fact is, if Earnhardt falls short of this year's championship by 25 points or less, whoever does win will undoubtedly be second-guessed.
"We need to make sure those 25 points don't come into play," Busch said. "Everybody's looking at one another differently on the team, knowing that it's very close. We don't want it to slip through our fingers."
Sunday's Banquet Foods 400 will be an excellent test of each team's championship make up. Kansas Speedway is the first of three mile-and-a-half tracks included in the 'Chase.' One theory suggests if a team is good here, chances are they'll be good at Charlotte and Atlanta, too. Unfortunately for Busch, the converse to that theory also holds true.
"These are the tracks that we've been running maybe fifth to 15th on this year," says Busch, whose lone victory at a mile-and-a-half track came at Atlanta in 2002. "Now we definitely have to be top 10."
The mile-and-a-half tracks may be the equalizers in NASCAR's playoff system. Of the 10 drivers involved, all except Jeremy Mayfield and Elliott Sadler have at least one win on at least one of these tracks.
Where teams can gain separation is at places where their skills surpass the competition. For Busch that may be the season's third to last event, Phoenix -- one of the tracks where Busch raced during his formative years in the Southwest Series.
"Phoenix is definitely a track where we think we can come away with the W," says a confident Busch, who led a race-high 98 laps at Phoenix last year but because of a late race fuel stop had to settle for fourth. "It's just a track where we thought the win slipped away and everybody knows that."
With just seven races to go, a 12-point advantage in hand and a dream within reach, Busch knows he can't afford to let anything slip away.
"Now there's no time for bad days," said Busch. "You've got to go put everything out on the line and you have to produce results."
So far, that hasn't been a problem.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.