NASCAR Season To Remember
December 20, 2004 | 9:17 A.M. EST
Such a finish was the result of a change by NASCAR in the season format known as the "Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup," which, after race No. 26, provided for a 10-race shootout among the Top 10 drivers.
For the NASCAR Busch Series, it was the fairy-tale ascent of a then-unknown driver with a then-unknown team – Martin Truex Jr. with Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s Chance 2 Motorsports – who drove all the way from a part-time existence to the series championship.
For the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, it was the triumph of veteran Bobby Hamilton, who became the oldest series champion at age 47, and the first driver-owner to clinch a series title since the late Alan Kulwicki did it in 1992.
Here, by series, are other highlights:
NASCAR Nextel Cup Series: The 2004 season began with many significant changes, among them Brian France's first full year as NASCAR chairman and chief executive officer. France's vision of the "Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup," where the top 10 drivers after 26 races have their point totals reset and compete for the title over the season's final 10 races, proved a definite success. Kurt Busch won the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series title on the last lap of the season-final at Homestead-Miami Speedway, beating runner-up Jimmie Johnson by a mere eight points in the final standings – the closest margin of victory in NASCAR history.
Busch's title was the second consecutive series title for owner Jack Roush and Roush Racing and the first for Busch's well-respected crew chief, 18-year veteran Jimmy Fennig.
Crucial to the 2004 season was the debut of new series sponsor Nextel. The Reston, Va.-based wireless communications company completed its first season with a memorable advertising campaign, "Proud to be fans," lauding NASCAR's history and its fans. Nextel also contributed many tangible, technical-oriented projects, including the popular "Nextel Experience" exhibit that travels each week to the track.
Also important was the 2004 advent of a new official fuel supplier, Sunoco, the world's largest manufacturer of racing gasoline. Sunoco's bright blue and yellow colors quickly became fixtures at race track fueling stations, and the company completed a flawless 2004 transition with on-time distribution, staging of fuel crews, at-track signage and quality of product.
Other memorable 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series highlights included Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the Daytona 500, an emotional, immensely popular victory (he also won the season-opening NASCAR Busch Series race at Daytona International Speedway). And only a week later, the 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth and eventual Raybestos Rookie of the Year Kasey Kahne staged a photo finish at North Carolina Speedway, Kahne's way of announcing himself as a valid competitor among new peers.
As the season progressed, the memories accumulated. On Aug. 8, Jeff Gordon won his fourth Brickyard 400, a significant feat considering only three other drivers have won four events at venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway – A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser, all four-time Indianapolis 500 winners.
Meanwhile, Johnson, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, built an impressive point standings lead through the season's first half. Elliott Sadler enjoyed a breakout season with Robert Yates Racing, winning two races (at Texas and the Labor Day event at California). Staring reality in the eye, Jeremy Mayfield won race No. 26 at Richmond, the cutoff point for the "Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup" and thereby assured himself a Chase berth.
Late in 2004, Johnson was back at the forefront, winning four of his series-high eight races during the Chase; Johnson's emotional Oct. 31 victory at Atlanta helped ease the grief of Hendrick Motorsports, which had been shaken by a team plane crash the previous Sunday.
And finally, as one of five drivers eligible to win the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series title, Busch – who led the point standings in the last eight of the final 10 weeks – prevailed at Homestead despite losing a right front tire as he entered pit road early in the Ford 400. He eventually finished fifth while Roush Racing teammate Greg Biffle won the race – enough to nip Johnson by those historic eight points.
NASCAR Busch Series: It was Martin Truex Jr.'s season, but when 2004 began, no one quite knew who Truex Jr. was. A product of the NASCAR Busch North Series, Truex Jr. was handpicked by Dale Earnhardt Jr. to drive the No. 8 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet, and a quick decision by Earnhardt Jr. and co-owner Teresa Earnhardt to run fulltime as the season opened proved fortuitious: Truex Jr. led the series in seven categories. Among them points (5,173), wins (six), poles (seven), races led (21), average finish (7.6), top fives (17) and top 10s (26).
Truex Jr.'s chief rival for the NASCAR Busch Series was 19-year-old Raybestos Rookie of the Year Kyle Busch, whose now owns or shares seven all-time Raybestos Rookie records. Among the six first-time NASCAR Busch Series winners, aside from Busch and Truex Jr., were Mike Bliss, Robby Gordon, Jason Leffler and Justin Labonte. Bliss provided a season highlight with a breathtaking late pass in the October night event at Lowe's Motor Speedway; the move secured his victory.
Particularly important was the mid-season announcement that the NASCAR Busch Series will head south to Mexico for its third event of 2005. The series will compete March 6 at Mexico City's famed 2.75-mile Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course, and that race will be the first NASCAR Busch Series point event to be staged outside the United States.
NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series: Bobby Hamilton's first series championship also could qualify for fairy-tale status. A longtime NASCAR Nextel Cup Series veteran, Hamilton began his third fulltime season in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2004, and ultimately emerged as its oldest champion. He clinched the title at Homestead, becoming the first driver-owner to win a series title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
Hamilton battled a pair of peers, fellow veterans Dennis Setzer and Ted Musgrave down to the wire, clinching the title by 46 points over Setzer and 70 points over the third-place Musgrave. For the ninth time in series history, the championship was decided in the season-finale, and for the second consecutive season, four drivers were eligible for the title heading into Homestead-Miami Speedway. Carl Edwards finished fourth in the final standings.
A new manufacturer, Toyota, also created plenty of buzz, debuting in 2004 in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. History was made on July 31 at Michigan International Speedway when the 2003 series champion, Travis Kvapil, won the first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event for Toyota. And Toyota closed 2004 by fielding nine trucks in the season finale at Homestead.
There were 13 different NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series winners in 2004 and five first-time winners. David Reuitmann captured Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors while driving for owner Darrell Waltrip.
Also important was NASCAR's competitive return to the state of Ohio. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series competed in the UAW/GM 250 at Mansfield Motorsports Park on May 16. It was the first NASCAR national series event to be staged in Ohio in 50 years.