DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) Martin Truex Jr.'s fourth-place finish Saturday at Darlington Raceway gave Dale Earnhardt Jr. the first of two series championships he covets this year.
With the help of a bad day by Busch Series runner-up Kyle Busch, Truex wrapped up the title with one more race remaining in the 2004 season, giving Chance 2 Motorsports, co-owned by Earnhardt and his stepmother, Teresa, their first championship.
''I never thought this would ever come true,'' Truex said.
Jamie McMurray shared the spotlight with Truex, winning his second race in a row and giving the new Rusty Wallace Inc. team its first series victory.
Truex is the first driver to win a Busch championship in his first full season since Earnhardt got the first of his two consecutive titles in 1998. The new champion has been the top driver in the series most of the year, leading the series in wins (6), poles (7), top fives (17) and top 10s (25).
Asked if he believed he could win the title in his first full year in the series, Truex pointed at the beaming Earnhardt Jr. and said, ''No, but he did. He told me back in the winter I could win this thing hands down and I told him he was crazy.''
His boss said he knew Truex had the talent and the equipment to get the job done.
''He just managed himself all year long, in and out of the race car,'' Earnhardt said. ''He got great finishes and drove a couple of 10th-place cars to top-five finishes. He had good equipment and didn't overdrive it too often or get in trouble too often.''
Earnhardt, who is third in the closest five-man championship battle in Cup history going into Sunday's Southern 500 here, was particularly happy to see Truex wrap up his title in a car with a sponsor, Wrangler, and the blue and yellow color scheme made famous by his late father.
''I told Martin it would be something special to me if he won (the championship) in this race,'' Junior said. ''He wears that uniform with pride and understands the whole situation. It's just a little added bonus to the whole deal.''
McMurray was excited, too.
''That's really cool to win at Darlington,'' said McMurray, whose No. 66 Dodge dominated the race, leading 72 of the 147 laps on the 1.366-mile oval, including the final 46. ''Now that Rockingham's gone, this is my favorite racetrack.
''You might remember that three or fours years ago, I said they should blow this place up, but I really like it now.''
McMurray, a regular in NASCAR's Nextel Cup series and a part-time performer in Busch, picked up his seventh Busch victory and third of the year. The first two wins of 2004, including Nov. 7 at Phoenix, came in cars belonging to his Cup owner, Chip Ganassi.
He won Saturday despite racing the last stint with four loose lugnuts on his right front tire.
''That wheel just couldn't get looser,'' McMurray said. ''I hit the wall at one point and the car got real tight. It was close.''
Truex came into the penultimate race of the season leading fellow rookie Busch by 160 points and needed only to add 30 points to his lead to wrap up the championship. Busch, trying hard to stay in the title chase, damaged his car in a collision with Ron Hornaday Jr. and Greg Biffle early in the race.
He came back from that to led 12 laps, but lost control and crashed again on lap 100, finishing 33rd and winding up 257 points behind the new champion.
''I got myself into some bad spots today and really put us in a bad situation,'' Busch said. ''We tried to overcome it and we just couldn't.''
Ashton Lewis Jr., whose family team will fold after the finale next Saturday in Homestead, finished second, matching his career-best. He was followed by Mike Bliss, Truex, Matt Kenseth and Casey Mears.
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