Kurt Busch dodges bullets to capture 2004 Nextel Cup title

by Pete McCole

November 21, 2004

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Kurt Busch champion flag
CIA Stock Photo

All Kurt Busch needed to win his first NASCAR Nextel Cup Championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway was keep his nose clean for 267 laps and hope the wheels didn't come off of his thrill ride season.

Busch finished fifth in the Ford 400 to beat Jimmie Johnson by just eight points in the closest finish in NASCAR Nextel Cup history, fighting back after having problems early and surviving a green-white-checkered finish to become the youngest driver to hoist the title since Jeff Gordon in 1996.

Busch's Roush Racing teammate Greg Biffle took the checkered flag in the race, followed by Johnson, Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Busch's title was the second in a row for team owner Jack Roush following Matt Kenseth's championship run in 2003.

"This is what a team does to win a championship - they persevere on a day such as this," Busch said. "All year long we've done things like this, whether we put ourselves in a hole or whether we had a small problem, I just can't believe we were able to overcome all of that turmoil today.

"Just an unbelievable day - to be able to persevere such as we did again - to overcome all the different obstacles - to put together a great season such as we did. With the regular season, superb job, and then with the playoffs, outstanding. One little slip here or there, we were able to make up for it"

Gordon fell just short in his bid for his fifth Nextel Cup title, finishing 16 points behind Busch in third place.

"I don't think we could have done much more," Gordon said. "You've got to look back at those last 10 races and ask what we could have done. But we did everything that we knew what to do. It was a great year for us. I wish we could have won the championship, but we gave it everything."

Mark Martin finished fourth in the championship battle, 107 points behind the leader. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ended up 138 points behind Busch in fifth.

Busch came into Sunday's race as one of five drivers with a mathematical chance of winning the ten-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, leading by 18 points over Johnson.

Starting on the pole for Sunday's race, Busch led the first five laps to collect the all important five bonus points, then faded back into the top five, just trying to stay out of trouble.

Then, on lap 92, the wheels literally came off.

Moments after reporting a flat tire to his crew, Busch's right tire wheel broke off his #97 Sharpie Ford Taurus, rolling and bouncing on its own down the front stretch.

Somehow, Busch managed to make his way down pit road, missing hitting the end of the pit road wall by mere inches. Busch made several pit stops to repair the damage, but stayed on the lead lap.

As far as the rest of the Chase contenders were concerned, Busch was no longer a threat to win the title. But as he has all season, Busch remained calm, cool and collected in the driver's seat and started to climb his way back to the head of the field.

Busch knew he didn't need to win the race to claim the title, just finish ahead of those chasing him.

"For us, to have those problems early it was good," Busch said. "To have smaller problems later, it was still chewing at me, but I knew if I could find the 24 and the 48 that we would have an opportunity to race those guys for this championship."

And race them he did.

Busch fought his way back into the top ten, just behind Johnson and Gordon, who were looking to pick up just enough spots to move them into the points lead.

As the race closed in on the finish, Ryan Newman appeared to be on his way to his third win of the season when he cut a right front tire and smacked the wall with two laps to go, setting up a green-white-checkered finish.

Johnson and Gordon managed to move up a few spots in the final three laps, but fell just short as Busch stayed just close enough to maintain his points lead.

"It was a pretty easy scenario," Johnson said. "I needed to beat the No. 24 (Jeff Gordon) and have quite a bit of distance between myself and the No. 97 (Kurt Busch). With the No. 97 on my bumper, I knew the championship was out of the question. I just needed to get by the No. 24.

"It was an incredible season for this whole Lowe's team. We won a lot of races. That's something I'm very proud of. We were eight points away from the championship. I'm definitely disappointed in that but we did all that we could."

Even in the final laps, Busch remained as confident as he has throughout the final ten races, despite the pressure of a bull's-eye on his back as the point's leader for seven of the final ten races.

"I'm completely exhausted about what these final 10 races meant," said Busch, "but it's a true testament to what a team has to do, to what a driver has to do, to what an owner sees as a leader and the way that you have to compete at your top level for 10 races against the 10 toughest competitors - that's what this season meant for us was these final 10 races because that's what the Nextel Chase for the Cup is now."

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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