HOMESTEAD, FL – NOVEMBER 21: Kurt Busch, driver of the #97 Roush Racing Sharpie Ford, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Championship at the Ford 400 on November 21, 2004 at the Homestead Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
The greatest stories in NASCAR are those so improbable – even impossible – that you couldn’t make them up if you wanted to. And this weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wraps up at a track that has seen several unbelievable endings in its still brief history.
Homestead-Miami Speedway has been the place where all nine prior editions of the Chase for the Sprint Cup have been settled, and where Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick will decide the 10th Chase-era champion on Sunday.
But they will have a hard time topping the drama the occurred in the inaugural Chase back in 2004.
No one knew what to expect in the first edition of the Chase. There was no established strategy except go out and win, which is exactly what seventh-seed Kurt Busch did in the first Chase race at Loudon, N.H. Four races into the Chase, Jimmie Johnson crashed at Kansas and fell 247 points behind Busch, the equivalent of about 62 points in today’s system – more than one full race in points.
After Kansas, it appeared Busch, in just his fourth full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was a shoe-in to give his then-car owner Jack Roush a second consecutive championship. Of course, in NASCAR, nothing is ever that easy.
What followed in the final six races of the ’04 season was a combination of high drama and unfathomable tragedy: Johnson would win the next two races at Charlotte and Martinsville to pull himself back into title contention. But prior to the Martinsville race, the crash of a Hendrick Motorsports airplane killed 10 people, including team owner Rick Hendrick’s son and brother.
Johnson and the 48 team put on an amazing rally, racing through crushing grief to win the next week at Atlanta, where Busch suffered a rare engine failure. A sixth-place finish by Johnson at Phoenix, followed by his fourth race victory of the Chase at Darlington, set up an unforgettable last race of the year.
In the finale at Homestead, Busch lost a right-front wheel on the 93rd of 267 laps, miraculously missing hitting the outside pit wall by less than a foot, somehow staying on the lead lap and rebounding from 28th place to finish fifth. Johnson ended up second to Greg Biffle in the race and second in points as Busch took the championship by eight points over Johnson and 16 over four-time champion Jeff Gordon.