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Busch set to defend Nextel Cup title

When last we saw Kurt Busch, he was lugging a dummy through a training course with the New York City fire department, guffawing with Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa on network television and raising the Nextel Cup high over his head in Times Square.

Such are the spoils of winning the championship in NASCAR's premier division.

Back at work in the seat of the No. 97 Ford for the first time since he stood on the roof of his car at Homestead and took hold of the trophy, Busch remained amazed by the whirlwind ride.

"It's a nice feeling, so today is just a way to get back in the mode of things," Busch said during the first day of a three-day testing session at Daytona International Speedway. "It still is the same objective as it is every year, and that's to go out and win the championship. But to have one under the belt is satisfying. It fuels you for a stronger drive and creates more ambition to come to the race track and to shoot for it again."

Busch said he had neither the time nor will for such thoughts as he contested the season-ending, 10-race playoff format that decided Nextel Cup's driver champion for the first time.

"It's tough to discuss during those final 10 what is right and what is wrong," Busch said. "You don't want to answer questions because you're in the points lead and you're pulled in so many directions, and there's that pressure there. You don't know when your motor is going to blow up. You don't know if your tire is going to fall off."

Busch earned a share of the points lead after winning the first playoff race at New Hampshire, then assumed the top spot permanently after finishing fifth at Talladega, helped by race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. being penalized 25 points for cursing on live television. Busch produced six top-10s in the next seven races, rallying when a lost wheel dropped him deep in the field to finish fifth at Homestead and beat Jimmie Johnson for the championship by eight points. It was the closest margin in NASCAR history.

Kurt's younger brother, Kyle, who had finished second in the Busch Series standings the previous day, couldn't bear to watch. Instead, he fished the lake in the Homestead infield.

"It came down to the last 40 laps and finally I turned on the outside TV," Kyle Busch said. "It's a good thing I missed the wheel falling off, because I just probably would have driven myself crazy, thrown my hands up in the air and said, "It's over,' thrown my reel into the lake."

Whether through revisionist history or a realization that the title is minted and irrevocable, members of the No. 97 crew told Busch this week they felt a championship twinge after winning at New Hampshire. It's nothing they could talk about then.

"You're not going to discuss it with anybody," Busch said. "You can't let anybody know your true feelings because you might jinx yourself. We're a very superstitious bunch, race car drivers are, and you have to stay focused on keeping your mind on the race car when it's time."

When that yielded a title, Busch was able to relax _ to a point.

"It was a time where it moved so quickly, but yet everything was so planned out that I wish, and I still do have some time left, just to kind of hang out on my couch and make sure it doesn't get up and walk out the front door," Busch said. "We threw a party at New Year's and we used the Nextel Cup as the centerpiece and just had a great time _ just kind of goofing off doing different things here and there. I rode four-wheelers so hard that I got some blisters and now it's time to go back to work."

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