When his right-front tire went flying off early
in the Ford 400, the final race of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series season, Kurt Busch, it seemed, was destined to spend his offseason cursing the freakish bad
luck that had cost him a shot at the series championship.
Skittering around on a busted wheel rim, Busch's Ford nearly slammed into a concrete retaining wall. But the moment challenger Jeff Gordon realized it was the break he'd been waiting for, NASCAR officials flew the caution flag, bringing the race to a crawl while track workers chased down the errant tire. The caution enabled Busch to duck into the pits for a fresh tire and scoot back onto the track without losing a lap. And that wild swing of fortune was the essence of why he roared on to win the 2004 championships at Homestead-Miami Speedway yesterday.
Busch was hardly dazzling in claiming stock-car racing's biggest prize with a fifth-place finish. But he and his team, led by veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig, minimized their bad luck and delivered a steady performance to clinch NASCAR's first championship contested under a new points system designed to deliver drama down the stretch.
"It was just an unbelievable day — to be able to persevere such as we did again," Busch said in victory lane.
Yesterday's race delivered all the drama NASCAR had hoped, with the outcome of both the 400-miler and the season's title coming down to a two-lap scramble in racing's version of overtime after race leader Ryan Newman slammed the wall with three laps to go. Greg Biffle of Vancouver, Wash., won the race with a well-placed shove around Tony Stewart.
Kasey Kahne finished 38th, knocked out of the race in a one-car crash on Lap 158. Kahne also won the "Rookie of The Year" Honors.
Closing frantically behind Biffle were Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Gordon, whose second- and third-place finishes left them second and third, respectively, in the championship standings. Johnson missed the title by eight points, finishing with 6,498 to Busch's 6,506. Gordon, seeking his fifth NASCAR championship, finished 16 points back.
The two had the good will of most every NASCAR team riding with them as a result of the October plane crash that killed 10 members of their Concord, N.C.-based race team — including the son, brother and two nieces of team owner Rick Hendrick. Hendrick returned to the track for the first time Saturday to support his drivers' bid for the title and was on the radio with each during the race
"It put a whole different meaning on the championship for us," Gordon said. "We knew how much it would mean to stand up on that stage (at the awards banquet) in New York and honor those guys as champions, Jimmie or myself, whichever one could get it done." Said Johnson: "We did everything we could possibly. When you go to bed at night knowing that, you sleep a lot easier."