HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Who will have the biggest smile on his face when he wakes up today, Kurt Busch or Brian France? Or perhaps Ford executives?
Busch, 26, who only a handful of years ago was racing dwarf cars around his native Las Vegas, did just what he had to Sunday to win NASCAR's inaugural Nextel Cup championship in one of Jack Roush's Fords. A fifth-place finish in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway did the job.
France, boss of NASCAR's stock-car empire, made a drastic change before the 2004 season in how the Nextel Cup would be determined. After much criticism and controversy, France's 10-race Chase for the Championship came down not only to the final race but to the final lap.
It was a nerve-wracking finale for the drivers and equally as nerve-wracking for the 72,000 fans who watched the drama unfold.
When was the last time that cars racing for seventh, eighth and ninth places, or even 15th and 16th, were more closely watched than who was up front winning?
For the record, Greg Biffle of Vancouver, Wash., won the Ford 400 driving another of Roush's Fords. Biffle led 117 of the 271 laps -- four more than scheduled because of a late caution flag.
The race belonged to the new-fangled points system, however, as the fortunes of all five championship contenders rose and fell like a high-speed elevator.
Before this season, the champion was determined over a 36-race season. This year the scenario was changed. The top 10 drivers after the first 26 races were seeded into a special 10-race playoff that culminated with Sunday's race.
Busch started on the pole in his Sharpie Ford but led only four laps before Biffle raced to the front in his National Guard Ford. Needing only to finish ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin to clinch a second straight Cup title for Roush, Busch stayed with the leaders for the first 90 laps until a bizarre incident dropped him to 26th.
As he was coming in for a pit stop, the right front wheel of Busch's car broke off and rolled majestically down pit lane before finally stopping. The delay dropped Busch to the rear of the lead pack of drivers.
"It was an odd problem that hasn't come up before," said Busch. "We feel like we dodged a huge, huge devastating proposition that could have taken us out of the championship. The wheel had a big vibration for 50 laps and it held on long enough for me to get to the pits.... "
Roush said he thought that Busch's chance was gone when the wheel came off.
"My heart stopped when I saw how close he was to pit wall and crashing that pit wall head on getting to the pits as the wheel came off," said Roush. "There were so many ways for us to lose, like the time Kurt had to spin to miss a wreck."
With Busch back in the pack as the leaders were storming around the 1.5-mile oval at near-record speeds, Gordon appeared as if he might win his fifth championship. His hopes were dimmed when the left rear tire on his Chevrolet went flat and he slid from third to 13th.
Meanwhile, Johnson was steadily working his way through the field from his 39th starting position. His qualifying attempt Friday was so slow that he had to accept a provisional just to start the race. By halfway, he was fourth.
Johnson, winner of four Chase races, finished second to Busch in the Nextel Cup and second to Biffle in the race. Gordon was third in the Cup and the race.
"We're definitely disappointed, but if you look back four or five weeks and we weren't even in the Chase," said Johnson. "With the loss of so many people in the October tragedy, it's amazing that we were able to have the finish we did and to have the comeback that we did."
Ten people, including team owner Rick Hendrick's brother John and son Ricky, were killed in an airplane crash as they were heading for a Cup race Oct. 24. Johnson and Gordon are Hendrick Motorsports drivers.
Earnhardt Jr. and Martin, who were mathematically still in the championship chase, did not challenge although Martin got as high as ninth. He finished 11th, while Earnhardt wound up 23rd.
"The car was really good at one point but from there on out it was the worst car I ever drove," Earnhardt said. "Every time I used the brake pedal it was shaking the car. But congratulations to Kurt Busch.... He's a fun guy to race with."
The race had seven leaders and 14 lead changes. Fourteen yellow flags slowed Biffle's winning speed down to 105.623 mph.
"It was an awesome day for Roush," Biffle said. "I didn't notice how crazy it was out there because we were kind of in our own race and were not aware so much of the surroundings.
"I was surprised when my spotter said, 'Kurt's up against the wall in [Turn] 2 and he's headed down pit row.' I'm thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, he's out of it.' And then later on they tell me that the center of the wheel broke.
"I think Kurt's going to be a good champion. He's a great race car driver. He's proven that this season."