Kurt Busch looks up at his trophy after winning the 2004 Nextel Cup Champioship, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2004, at the Homestead Miami-Speedway in Homestead, Fla. Busch finished fifth in the Ford 400 to clinch the title.
AP Photo/Terry Renna
HOMESTEAD, Fla. Nothing could stop Kurt Busch from winning the closest championship in NASCAR history.
Not a broken wheel early in the race. Not four extra laps forced by a nerve-racking late restart. Not a double-barreled challenge by NASCAR's most successful team. Not all the pressure forged by a new playoff-style format.
On a day of high drama, with the season championship seemingly changing lap to lap, pass to pass, Busch held on to finish fifth behind teammate Greg Biffle in Sunday's Ford 400 and wrap up his first Nextel Cup title.
He won it by eight points over Jimmie Johnson a difference of just two places in the season-ending race and 16 over Jeff Gordon.
The dramatic finish was a fitting end to a new 10-man, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship was proved a bigger success than new NASCAR chairman Brian France could have hoped for.
After years of ho-hum championships, often decided weeks before the final race, Busch came into the finale leading Johnson by 18 points and Gordon by 21, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin also with an outside shot at the title.
It looked as if Busch's lead might not be enough when the right front wheel broke on his Roush Racing Ford, nearly putting him into the wall separating the pit lane from the track on the 93rd of 271 laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Somehow, Busch kept his car off the wall as the tire came off and bounced onto the track, bringing out a caution flag that allowed him to stop for repairs without losing a lap. He fell to 28th but fought his way back among the leaders, just good enough for the 26-year-old driver to become NASCAR's fourth-youngest champion. The closest previous 1-2 finish for the series title came in 1992 when Alan Kulwicki beat Bill Elliott by 10 points.
''It's an unbelievable deal,'' Busch said. ''This is what a team does to win a championship. They persevere on a day such as this. All year long we've done things like this, whether we put ourselves in a hole or had a small problem. I just can't believe we were able to overcome all that turmoil today.
Longtime crew chief Fennig won his first Cup title.
''This is a championship team and a championship driver,'' Fennig said. ''Kurt Busch is awesome.''
Busch, in just his fourth season in NASCAR's biggest series, never wavered despite a championship battle too close to call through most of the race. The points lead changed several times sometimes on consecutive laps. If the results had stayed as they were at one point late in the race, the top three drivers would have tied, and Johnson would have won based on his eight victories.
Johnson and four-time champion Gordon gave it everything they had, finishing second and third after Biffle grabbed the lead on the last restart held off Johnson for the last four laps.
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