LOUDON, N.H. – Kurt Busch's bid for a second championship started in a shroud of controversy when NASCAR punished his team for getting caught with an extra set of tires.
The 2004 champion blamed the tire violation on miscommunication between a pair of NASCAR officials, and said he didn't think being parked for 15 minutes of practice Saturday would hurt him in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
"It's just motivation for what we know we did right, we didn't do anything wrong," Busch said. "That's what it takes to get me motivated. When somebody calls us out wrong, we didn't do anything wrong, we're going to go out there and run our best."
Busch will start ninth in Sunday's race, the first of 10 that decides the NASCAR championship.
He opened his day sitting inside the cockpit of the No. 2 Dodge, which was held on pit road with a NASCAR official standing at the front of the car, as his competitors zoomed around him on the track. The start-and-park team Gunselman Motorsports, with driver Landon Cassill in the car, was also held on pit road as punishment for giving Penske Racing a set of tires Friday.
NASCAR allows teams to use six sets of tires for practice and qualifying on Friday and Saturday. Penske had the option of swapping its assigned six sets with other teams through Goodyear, and Busch's team apparently didn't turn a set in when it was given Gunselman's tires. That pushed its inventory to an illegal seven sets.
"The tire transfer wasn't done correctly," Sprint Cup Series director John Darby said, adding that Busch will be allowed the full allotment of eight sets for Sunday's race.
But Busch said the mix-up resulted when the team got differing directives from a pair of NASCAR officials, and blamed the incident on "another official who will remain nameless, but he has two first names and you can't trust guys with two first names.
"It wasn't anything we were trying to do. Bottom line is there was miscommunication among the officials, we paid our 15-minute penalty. It's just like calling balls and strikes, you just go with what the umpire says and we've moved on from there."
It's an interesting opening to what many hope will be the most competitive Chase since the format was introduced in 2004, the year Busch won the opener at New Hampshire and rolled to the championship.
Because the 12-driver Chase field is so stout, and 60 points already separates leader Denny Hamlin from the bottom five in the standings, there's a sense that Sunday's race will be critical and a poor finish could immediately knock a handful of drivers from contention.
So after a spread-out qualifying session Friday, the field seemed to tighten over Saturday's two practices.
Jamie McMurray, who is not racing for the championship, led the final practice session but was followed by Chase drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. Clint Bowyer was sixth fastest and followed by Hamlin.
Jeff Burton ranked 11th, Busch was 19th in the final practice (sixth in the first session), Kyle Busch was 21st and Greg Biffle 22nd.
Carl Edwards was 23rd, Kevin Harvick wound up 27th after struggling through both sessions, and Matt Kenseth brought up the rear for the Chase drivers in 30th. He's fought oil pressure problems all weekend.
With so much on the line, teams are using different strategies and nine Chase drivers brought brand new cars to New Hampshire. That could explain the varying differences between practice speeds and qualifying positions as teams were making massive adjustments since unloading their cars Friday morning.
All three Richard Childress Racing drivers are in new cars, as are Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch and Hamlin.
Biffle and Kenseth brought new cars for Roush-Fenway Racing, Gordon for Hendrick Motorsports, and Kurt Busch's car is also making its debut.
Johnson, though, is in the same car that he drove to a win here in June, even though it didn't seem all that sporty at times. He qualified a New Hampshire-worst 25th.
"There's pros and cons about bringing new cars out," said Stewart, who is in a tested car. "The positive is you think it's better. The negative is you haven't ran it. I can guarantee that just because it seems better, you're not going to know until it's on the track. Sometimes you get cars you like better than others."