Kurt Busch was seventh among the title contenders heading into Sunday's first race of NASCAR's new 10-man, 10-race Nextel Cup championship format.
In the days leading to the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway, whenever Busch was asked what the first race of the championship showdown would be like, he smiled and said, "Who knows, we could be the points leader come the end of Sunday."
A dominating performance gave Busch a sweep of the 2004 events at the 1.058-mile oval and lifted him into a tie with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the points lead with nine races remaining.
"Well, No. 1 is in the books, but there's still an awful lot of work to do," Busch said after leading 155 of 300 laps.
Busch was just as strong late in the July race here when he won easily, solidifying his spot in the top 10 in the same No. 97 Roush Racing Ford he drove Sunday. The win was his third of the season, 11th career.
"This car was awesome. It was real tough," he said, laughing. "We had to take the car cover off and throw (the car) back out on the track."
It is the third time in Busch's four-year Cup career he has led the points. He led for one race after finishing second at Rockingham in February 2003 and again for one race after finishing sixth in April at Texas.
Matt Kenseth, the 2003 series champion, was second, 2.488 seconds (about 20 car lengths) behind his Roush Racing teammate.
"I knew we probably weren't going to catch him," Kenseth said. "Kurt had a great car and was getting through the center of the corner really fast. I tried to keep up with him as long as I could.
"We were set up a little different than Kurt. We couldn't do anything with him, but I'm pretty happy with the way it went."
Kenseth won the Cup championship last year in a relatively boring runaway that helped NASCAR in its decision to change the points format.
Team owner Jack Roush was ecstatic by the strong start for the teammates in the title battle, especially after being so disappointed Sept. 11 at Richmond when Busch ran out of gas while leading eight laps from the end.
"A lot of cars fell out and I think it's a heartbreak day for a lot of teams, but we were lucky," Roush said. "That was great that they had plenty of gas today and we didn't have any problems on the racetrack."
With qualifying rained out Friday and the lineup set by owner points, all the drivers in the championship battle started up front, and seven finished among the top 13.
Earnhardt, who needed a relief driver at this track in July after being burned in a sports car crash the previous week, ran strong Sunday and finished third. If the championship were determined now, Earnhardt would win the tiebreaker based on wins this season, 4-3 over Busch.
"My car was pretty good all day," said Earnhardt, who started the day third in points. "We guessed right on the setup. We didn't have a good enough car for a top-five finish, so I'm pretty happy about that."
He was followed by rookie Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray, Joe Nemechek, Jeff Gordon, Elliott Sadler, Michael Waltrip, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin.
Gordon, Sadler, Johnson and Martin, another Roush driver, are all among the title contenders. Gordon, who began the day with a five-point lead over teammate Johnson, is third, nine points behind the leaders and one point ahead of Kenseth. Johnson fell to fifth, 30 points back.
The day began with the top 10 separated by a total of 45 points. Problems for Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield (damaged in the same accident involving Robby Gordon and Greg Biffle) and Ryan Newman (engine) left the trio far behind Busch and Earnhardt. Stewart is 124 points back, Newman 136 and Mayfield 142.