By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Ahead of this weekend’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway that will see one of four drivers walk away with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy, we’ll take a step back to 2004 and the first year of the Chase format, along with the drama that played out in the season finale to deliver Kurt Busch with his first Cup championship.
With Sprint/Nextel taking over the series title sponsorship from Winston at the end of the 2003 season, a new championship format was introduced, called “The Chase” and it would make its debut the following year. Instead of points being tabulated over the full 36-race season and a champion decided on that, the season would now be split into a 26-race regular season and a 10 race playoff to determine the champion, with 10 drivers eligible for the title when the postseason began.
Entering the Chase, the 10 drivers eligible were Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield, and Ryan Newman.
By the time Homestead arrived, just five of those drivers remained in title contention. Busch held the points lead by 18 points over Johnson in second, with Gordon in third, Earnhardt in fourth, and Martin in fifth.
Busch would start the weekend off on the right foot by winning the pole for the Ford 400 with his Roush Racing teammate Greg Biffle alongside. Busch led the first four laps of the race, but Biffle took over the following lap and set sail in the lead for the next 110 laps.
While Biffle ran up front, Busch was running into trouble of his own.
On lap 94, Busch radioed in and thought he had a flat tire, so he began to make his way to pit road. Just as he got to the entrance of pit road, the right front wheel came completely off of his No. 97 car, with Busch just missing the pit road wall by a matter of inches and the wheel heading off in the other direction back onto the track.
Busch was able to limp his car down to the attention of his crew, where they got him fixed up in short order. Luckily for Busch, the wheel taking off down the track brought out the yellow and allowed him to stay on the lead lap, albeit back in 28th, dropping him from the points lead to third, 55 points out.
It took him a while to do it, but Busch eventually worked his way back into the top-10 and reassumed the points lead over Johnson and Gordon.
With the championship almost in hand for Busch, the caution came out with two laps to go, setting up a green-white-checkered flag finish and put the title back in limbo between Busch, Gordon, and Johnson.
On the ensuing restart, Biffle jumped to the lead over Tony Stewart, with the three championship contenders following right in their tracks. Johnson and Gordon tried their hardest to get past Biffle for the race win, but had to settle for second and third instead as Biffle scored the win. Stewart fell back to fourth at the finish.
Meanwhile, Busch did exactly what he needed to by keeping close tabs on them and finishing fifth to secure the championship by eight points.
“Unbelievable deal,” said Busch. “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’ve put ourselves in a hole or whether we’ve had a small problem. I just can’t believe we were able to overcome all of that turmoil today.”
Along with it being the first Cup Series championship for Busch, it was also the first title for his crew chief Jimmy Fennig, who has been around the sport for years.
“This is a championship team,” said Fennig. “That’s a championship driver. I mean, it’s awesome to be here.
“These guys, they didn’t quit. We had trouble, everything else, but we came out and Kurt Busch is awesome. He’s a champion.”