The van rolled through the darkness, past straggling fans, as it left the infield at Homestead--Miami Speedway late Sunday night. Four hours had passed since the checkered flag had been waved on NASCAR's 2004 season, and in the back of the white Ford E-350 a skinny 26-year-old wearing a Champagne-soaked driver's suit munched on a pulled-pork sandwich and a chocolate cookie, his championship dinner. He hadn't won the race, but he'd won the crown, and a torchlit celebration in South Beach awaited his arrival. As Kurt Busch gazed out the window into the breezy night, one of his friends asked if he realized how close he'd come to crashing on Lap 93 of the Ford 400--an accident that surely would have prevented him from becoming the third youngest driver to win a Cup title?
"I know it was close," said Busch with a sly smile, "but, Dude, I'm trying to create some fans. You gotta have drama."
Let the record show that Busch, NASCAR's drama king of 2004, came within about 10 inches of wrecking his number 97 Ford in what turned out to be the closest championship race in the 55 years of NASCAR. Heading into Sunday's season finale at Homestead, Busch led Jimmie Johnson by 18 points, Jeff Gordon by 21, Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 72 and Mark Martin by 82. Then, on Lap 93 of a scheduled 267, the wheels nearly came off Busch's title run--literally. While running in second place, Busch thought that he felt his right front tire losing air pressure. As he dived off the track and into the pits for a tire change, his right front wheel broke at the hub, and the wheel and tire bounded away. Skidding in a shower of sparks, Busch swerved to his left, just missing the water barriers at the head of pit lane, and limped into his pit stall. Because his tire had rolled onto the track, officials waved the caution flag. That allowed Busch to stay on the lead lap, but he plummeted to 28th place in the race--which, based on where Johnson and Gordon were running, would have left him third in the championship standings. "My heart stopped when I saw how close he was to the pit wall," said Jack Roush, Busch's owner.
For the next two hours Gordon, Johnson and Busch played a game of championship leapfrog as their track positions changed. On Lap 132 Johnson, who'd moved into third place in the race, was up by 48 points. By Lap 178 Gordon was running fourth and atop the standings by 36 points. But Busch calmly worked his way up through the field. With five laps remaining, he'd advanced to seventh. But even if Busch held that position, Gordon (in fourth) could still take the Cup by winning; his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson (in fifth) could finish second and win it all himself.
The race was extended by four laps because of a late caution. Just before the final restart, the crowd of 70,000 rose to its feet. After more than nine months of racing, 36 stops on the Cup circuit and 10,755 total laps turned, the title came down to a green-white-checker finish. Two laps. Even some veteran pit reporters who've seen it all said they were nervous.
At the restart Gordon, in third, and Johnson, in fourth, made all-out charges but didn't have enough juice under the hood to blast to the front. Johnson finished second behind winner Greg Biffle (a teammate of Busch's) and Gordon took third. And so it was Busch, a Las Vegas native, who hit the $5.3 million jackpot--the champion's purse--by finishing fifth. He ended the season with eight more points than Johnson and 16 more than Gordon. "The NFL has the Super Bowl, baseball has the World Series and now NASCAR has this season-ending race in the Chase," said Busch. "I've never driven so hard in my life. Man, what a couple of weeks!"
Indeed, the Ford 400 capped an arresting month of racing, perhaps the best sustained wheel-to-wheel action in NASCAR history. Over the last four races, drivers attempted moves seemingly more suited to carnival bumper cars than to 3,400-pound stock cars. It was great theater, which explains why television ratings for the final 10 races jumped 10% from last year and why on Sunday, NBC had its highest-ever rating (5.6) for a NASCAR race during the NFL regular season. "I've been around for a while," says Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, "and I've never seen so much aggression on the track."
The stirring finale vindicates NASCAR's controversial off-season decision to change its scoring system. Instead of giving equal weight to each race, as in the past, the new Chase for the Cup format created a playoff-style sprint to the title. (After the 26th race of the season, NASCAR adjusted the point totals of the top 10 drivers so that the gap from one position to the next was just five points. Only the top 10 drivers were eligible to win the 10-race shootout.)
The Chase concept was the brainchild of Mark Dyer, NASCAR's vice president of licensing. As he watched Matt Kenseth run away with the 2003 points title during a less than thrilling--O.K., boring--last month of the season, Dyer suggested to NASCAR chairman Brian France that "maybe we should have a championship season within the season." A few days later Dyer sent a two-page e-mail to France outlining a playoff-style format. France floated the idea to other NASCAR executives and drivers and even to some fans. The vast majority told him that it sounded more idiotic than New Coke.
"I thought the idea had a lot of merit," said France on Saturday as he sat in the NASCAR hauler at Homestead. "Then I called my dad [former NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr.], and his response was, 'That sounds a little far out there.'"
Yet Brian remained convinced that he needed to do something to shake NASCAR out of its end-of-the-season doldrums. Since 1999 the second-place driver had trailed the leader by an average of 233 points entering the final race. So Brian, whose grandfather Bill France Sr. founded NASCAR, green-lighted the radical makeover. NASCAR polls conducted early in the 2004 season indicated that 90% of the fans were against the change. But by the fall, fans, drivers and car owners had embraced the Chase because it created something that past seasons had lacked: suspense. A recent ESPN.com poll revealed that 65% of NASCAR fans now favor the Chase format.
"I wasn't really too hot about it in the beginning, but it's grown on me," says driver Elliott Sadler, who wound up ninth in the Chase. "If there's a football game and the score is 49--3 in the fourth quarter, well, you aren't going to watch it. But if it's 10--10 in the fourth quarter, you're going to pay attention."
After the first six weeks of the Chase, however, it looked as if NASCAR was destined for another dud of a finish; Busch held a commanding 96-point lead. He had been nearly flawless in that run, finishing sixth or better in all six races. But on Halloween he blew an engine on Lap 51 of the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 in Atlanta and finished 42nd. Johnson blazed to Victory Lane in Atlanta for his third straight win and climbed into second place, within striking distance (59 points) of Busch. More significant, at least four drivers now had a shot at catching Busch, which meant that none of the contenders could afford to "points race." That's motor-sports lingo for driving defensively--the racing equivalent of Dean Smith's four-corners offense. Now they all had to go for it.
And Busch, showing newfound maturity, held them off. In 2003 Busch won four races and finished 11th in points, but he's best remembered for his dustup with fellow driver Jimmy Spencer during an August race at Michigan International Speedway. That day Busch and Spencer, who had an ongoing feud, made contact on the track. Busch radioed his crew and, forgetting that others were listening, reported that he had tried to "flatten [Spencer's] fender." After the race Spencer, an old school sort, punched Busch in the nose. Busch told reporters he'd done nothing to provoke Spencer, but when Busch's in-car audiotape was made public, he was put on probation for the rest of '03. Suddenly he was NASCAR's youngest black knight.
During the off-season Busch's primary sponsor, Newell-Rubbermaid, offered to send him to a stress-management specialist. Busch accepted, and ever since the green flag dropped at the Daytona 500 last February, he has appeared more relaxed in front of the media and more controlled on the track. On Sunday night, while speaking to fans in the garage, the newly-crowned champion acknowledged that he'd "acted like an idiot" in the past. He then paid tribute to his 51-year-old mentor and crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, saying Fennig "taught me how to win."
Busch's youthful mistakes can be attributed in part to his turbo-charged rise to Cup level. Consider: In 1999 Busch was competing against weekend warriors in the Southwest Series. Late that year he won a tryout for a seat in one of Roush's trucks in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in the 2000 season. Roush was so smitten with Busch's abilities--Robbie Loomis, Gordon's crew chief, calls Busch a "talent that comes along once every 10 years"--that seven months later he elevated Busch to his Cup team. This meant that all of Busch's callow missteps played out on NASCAR's biggest stage, instead of in the backwater of the Truck or Busch series. "Every single one of my mistakes was at this elite level," says Busch. "Maybe I should have waited another year in the truck."
His past may always trail Busch, but late on Sunday, as five police officers escorted him from one postrace interview to the next, fans wearing Dale Earnhardt Jr. Tshirts and Jeff Gordon hats kept running up and yelling their congratulations. Busch always turned his head, looked them in the eye, smiled and said thanks. For those few moments, the baby-faced Busch looked all grown-up.
SPARKS AND SPRAY
Busch dodged disaster when he lost a wheel on Lap 93 and then climbed back to fifth place--and the title.
Photographs by Bob Rosato
¬†[See caption above]
Biffle (front, left) wasn't in the Chase, but his win in the Ford 400 helped clinch the title for teammate Busch (right).
CHART: SLIM FILMS
The Great Chase
After the first 26 races, here's how the Cupcontenders stood heading into the 10-race playoff (from top, below)--and how they finished.
WORTH CANOY/ICON SMI
RIC FELD/AP (2)
RIC FELD/AP (2)
WORTH CANOY/ICON SMI
CRAIG PETERSON/ICON SMI
WORTH CANOY/ICON SMI