Busch is Nextel Cup champ

Kurt Busch won the 2004 Nextel Cup after a drive back from the brink in a dramatic series finale at Miami Homestead Sunday. The Roush Ford driver lost a right-front wheel and suffered a poor mid-race pit stop but fought back to finish fifth - enough to beat his championship rivals Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. His team-mate Greg Biffle won the race

Busch is Nextel Cup champ

In a fittingly dramatic season finale, the title fight came down to a one-lap green flag dash after Ryan Newman crashed out of the lead with two laps to go. As the race went green for the final time neither Johnson or Gordon could stop Biffle charging through to take the win. Busch finished just behind them in fifth, holding his nerve to win the inaugural 'Chase for the Cup'.

At the finish line, Busch was fifth, with Jimmie Johnson second and Jeff Gordon third, leaving Busch with an eight-point advantage over Johnson and 16 points over Busch.

"I really thought we were going to lose this one," said owner Jack Roush, who won the championship for the second year in a row.

Busch had had a 96-point lead after the Martinsville race in October, but he lost most of that when his engine blew at Atlanta. Fortunately for Busch, the other contenders (except for Johnson) had trouble that day, and Busch, amazingly, maintained his lead.

Coming to Homestead, Busch had an 18-point lead over Johnson and 21 on Gordon, indicating that he had to finish at least sixth in order to keep his lead. As at Charlotte, Talladega and Dover, Busch managed again to pull the rabbit out of the hat.

"I've seen things go wrong and tried to understand the best I can what I need to do as a driver to persevere and stay focused on the task at hand," he said. "I had one smooth race I believe, and that was New Hampshire, maybe Martinsville a little bit. But to go to these racetracks and to attack them for a win and nothing less, one race after the next....

"Five hundred miles one week, 400 the next. Go to a rough and tough race track like Martinsville after the week before at Talladega, a driver has to adapt to so many changing circumstances at every racetrack.

"I'm overwhelmed. I'm completely exhausted about what these final 10 races meant, but it's a true testament to what a team has to do, what a driver has to do."

Busch was emotional after the race and dedicated his victory to his veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig and the Hendrick Motorsports organisation that ran his brother Kyle in the Busch Series and which suffered tragedy last month after a plane crash killed several of its team members.

"I'm choked up because there are heavy hearts in the NASCAR community with what we had to go through a few weeks ago with Hendrick," he said. "I love them truly and I want to donate anything that I can from this championship for them. My brother [Kyle who races for Henrick in the Busch Series] was affected by this so it hit home for all of us."

Busch's fight-back also came at the end of NASCAR's reformulated championship system. After 26 races, the points were recomputed for the top 10 in the standings, grouping those drivers within 45 points. They then ran the final 10 races, with five still mathematically in the picture at the finish.

Although criticised by many as false and contrived, many judged the new format as a success, and it certainly produced a close finish.

"I think it turned out to be a good battle," said Johnson, who had been one of the system's vocal critics. "I think with all the excitement we had built around the race there are more positives than negatives that I spoke about earlier in the year with this points system."

Busch, a 26-year-old from Las Vegas, is a good guy with a tendency to speak in stilted, verbose sentences. He was probably the least popular among the five surviving the contenders, with most of the cheers going to Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon.

Busch was promoted suddenly by Roush from Craftsman Trucks in 2001 and was seen by many as over confident and mouthy. A garage confrontation with veteran Jimmy Spencer at Michigan in 2003 actually turned in Spencer's favour, at least in the fans' eyes.

This year, Busch has shown increased maturity and awareness of the requirements of his role.

"The fans are entitled to root and pull against anybody they want to," he said. "To be in a situation such as mine, the underdog, to be able to come to the top, maybe too quickly, throughout my career - I was relatively unknown, from the West Coast, [with a tendency] to race too hard too early and wrinkle those fenders - that crumbled the spirits of some of those fans.

"This is definitely a bullet point in my career that will help some of them realise I'm not such a bad guy, I guess."

The new system produced some oddities. Under the season-long format used to this year, Gordon would have won the championship by 47 points over Johnson, with Dale Earnhardt third, 173 behind, and Busch out of contention, 252 behind in fourth.

Jamie McMurray, excluded from the original top 10 in September, ran consistently through the 10 races and would have been tied for fifth with Mark Martin, with Martin taking the spot under the tie-breaker. Johnson, who won eight races to Busch's three, including four during the playoff run, did not make enough points under either system.

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