By Ben White
Utilizing a new format known as the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, champ Kurt Busch was the only driver to score top-10 finishes in nine of the 10 races during the season-ending playoff.
Busch was the 1998 rookie of the year in the NASCAR Southwest Series and earned the series title the following year. That led to a tryout in a Roush Racing “Gong Show,” which he won and earned a Craftsman Truck Series ride.
The Las Vegas native began his tenure in NASCAR’s Cup Series with Roush Racing by making seven starts in 2000. Under the guidance of longtime crew chief Jeff Hammond, his best finish of 19th came at Florida’s Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Busch went winless in 2001 but visited Victory Lane four times in both 2002 and 2003. He had found something special with veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig, a winner of 24 Cup Series races with drivers Bobby Allison and Mark Martin before joining forces with Busch in 2002
Busch was in the best position to challenge for the Cup Series championship in 2003. He had a winning crew chief who provided great chemistry when it came to preparing their No. 97 Roush Racing Ford as Busch had proven he could win anywhere.
The Chase produced the closest points battle in NASCAR Cup Series history with Busch beating Jimmie Johnson by eight points to claim his first series championship.
Busch was seventh of the 10 drivers entering the Chase and jumped to second in the standings following his victory in the opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He took command of the standings following race No. 3 of 10 and held off Johnson’s late-season charge that included four wins in the final six races.
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Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet, won six races during the 2004 Cup Series season, logging 21 top-10 finishes. The native of Kannapolis, North Carolina, finished fifth in points after suffering DNFs at Las Vegas, California, Martinsville and Atlanta. His average start was 10.9 and he had an average finish of 12.1 during the 36-race Cup Series season. What he gained in wins was erased by the quartet of DNFs.
Driving the No. 19 Evernham Motorsports Dodge, Jeremy Mayfield led 151 of 400 laps to win the Chevy Rock N’ Roll 400 at Richmond Raceway. Mayfield was in a must-win situation to advance into the playoffs and seemingly had all the odds against him. Mayfield took the lead for the final time on lap 393 from Kurt Busch. The celebration in Victory Lane was extra special because of the opportunity to compete for the championship.
Kurt Busch’s No. 97 Roush Racing Rubbermaid Ford won three times and had 21 top-10 finishes in 36 Cup Series starts.
Dominating the win column, Jimmie Johnson wheeled the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Lowe’s Chevrolet to eight Cup Series victories.
2004 Season Recap
DATE LOCATION WINNER
Feb.15 | Daytona International Speedway | Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Feb. 22 | Rockingham Speedway | Matt Kenseth
March 7 | Las Vegas Motor Speedway | Matt Kenseth
March 14 | Atlanta Motor Speedway | Dale Earnhardt Jr.
March 21 | Darlington Raceway | Jimmie Johnson
March 28 | Bristol Motor Speedway | Kurt Busch
April 4 | Texas Motor Speedway | Elliott Sadler
April 18 | Martinsville Speedway | Rusty Wallace
April 25 | Talladega Superspeedway | Jeff Gordon
May 2 | Auto Club Speedway | Jeff Gordon
May 15 | Richmond Raceway | Dale Earnhardt Jr.
May 30 | Charlotte Motor Speedway | Jimmie Johnson
June 6 | Dover Motor Speedway | Mark Martin
June 13 | Pocono Raceway | Jimmie Johnson
June 20 | Michigan International Speedway | Ryan Newman
June 27 | Sonoma Raceway | Jeff Gordon
July 3 | Daytona International Speedway | Jeff Gordon
July 11 | Chicagoland Speedway | Tony Stewart
July 25 | New Hampshire Motor Speedway | Kurt Busch
Aug. 1 | Pocono Raceway | Jimmie Johnson
Aug. 8 | Indianapolis Motor Speedway | Jeff Gordon
Aug. 15 | Watkins Glen International | Tony Stewart
Aug. 22 | Michigan International Speedway | Greg Biffle
Aug. 28 | Bristol Motor Speedway | Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Sept. 5 | Auto Club Speedway | Elliott Sadler
Sept. 11 | Richmond Raceway | Jeremy Mayfield
Sept. 19 | New Hampshire Motor Speedway | Kurt Busch
Sept. 26 | Dover Motor Speedway | Ryan Newman
Oct. 3 | Talladega Superspeedway | Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Oct. 10 | Kansas Speedway | Joe Nemechek
Oct. 16 | Charlotte Motor Speedway | Jimmie Johnson
Oct. 24 | Martinsville Speedway | Jimmie Johnson
Oct. 31 | Atlanta Motor Speedway | Jimmie Johnson
Nov. 7 | Phoenix Raceway | Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Nov. 14 | Darlington Raceway | Jimmie Johnson
Nov. 21 | Homestead-Miami Speedway | Greg Biffle