HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Who will have the biggest smile on his face when they wake 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 yesterday 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, third-generation boss of NASCAR's stock car empire, made a drastic change shortly 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 also to the final lap.
Busch ended up eight points ahead of Jimmie Johnson in the standings in the tightest points race in history.
It was a nerve-racking finale for the drivers and equally as nerve-racking for the 72,000 fans who watched the drama unfold on a bright and breezy South Florida day.
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 France's new- fangled Chase, 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 was culminated by yesterday's race here in the land of palms and palmettos.
Busch started on the pole in his Ford but led only four laps before Biffle raced to the front in another Ford. Needing only to finish ahead of 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 back 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 and [crew chief] Jimmy Fennig fix it."
Roush, watching from his perch in the pits, said he thought for a moment 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," Roush said. "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 up to fourth and with Busch and Gordon having their problems, the former off-road racer emerged as the likely champion.
Johnson, winner of four Chase races, finished second to Busch in the Nextel Cup and second to Biffle in the race. Gordon was also third in both the Cup and the race.
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," said Biffle. "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] two 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 racecar driver. He's proven that this season. He might be nervous about what he has to do as champion, like appearing on the Today show and stuff like that, but that $5 million will probably keep him headed in the right direction."
Earlier this week, France said he was entirely pleased with the new points format and that it would be the same next year.