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Busch runs down series title
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Nothing could stop Kurt Busch from winning the closest championship in NASCAR history.
Not a broken wheel early in the race. Not four extra laps forced by a nerve-racking late restart. Not a double-barreled challenge by NASCAR's most successful team. Not all the pressure forged by a new playoff-style format.
On a day of high drama, with the season championship seemingly changing lap to lap, pass to pass, Busch held on to finish fifth behind teammate Greg Biffle in Sunday's Ford 400 and wrap up his first Nextel Cup title.
He won it by eight points over Jimmie Johnson -- a difference of just two places in the season-ending race -- and 16 over Jeff Gordon.
The dramatic finish was a fitting end to a new 10-man, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship was proved a bigger success than new NASCAR chairman Brian France could have hoped for.
After years of ho-hum championships, often decided weeks before the final race, Busch came into the finale leading Johnson by 18 points and Gordon by 21, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin also with an outside shot at the title.
It looked as if Busch's lead might not be enough when the right front wheel broke on his Roush Racing Ford, nearly putting him into the wall separating the pit lane from the track on the 93rd of 271 laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Somehow, Busch kept his car off the wall as the tire came off and bounced onto the track, bringing out a caution flag that allowed him to stop for repairs without losing a lap. He fell to 28th but fought his way back among the leaders, just good enough for the 26-year-old driver to become NASCAR's fourth-youngest champion. The closest previous 1-2 finish for the series title came in 1992 when Alan Kulwicki beat Bill Elliott by 10 points.
"It's an unbelievable deal," Busch said. "This is what a team does to win a championship. They persevere on a day such as this. All year long we've done things like this, whether we put ourselves in a hole or had a small problem. I just can't believe we were able to overcome all that turmoil today.
"I'd like to put a cap on today and move on to what we did this year as a team, which is unbelievable. This championship is for Jimmy Fennig and everybody that's put work into this car."
Longtime crew chief Fennig won his first Cup title.
"This is a championship team and a championship driver," Fennig said. "Kurt Busch is awesome."
Busch, in just his fourth season in NASCAR's biggest series, never wavered despite a championship battle too close to call through most of the race. The points lead changed several times -- sometimes on consecutive laps. If the results had stayed as they were at one point late in the race, the top three drivers would have tied, and Johnson would have won based on his eight victories.
Johnson and four-time champion Gordon gave it everything they had, finishing second and third after Biffle grabbed the lead on the last restart held off Johnson for the last four laps.
"With the 97 (Busch) behind me there at the end, I knew the championship was out of the question and I was just racing Jeff for second," said Johnson, who had won four of five races before the finale.
Gordon failed to lead a lap in the race and said he knew he didn't have the car to win.
"We gave it a heck of an effort," Gordon said. "We had a flat left rear that really got us behind and we fought all day long. We struggled a little bit there at the beginning and got better and better. Those last couple of restarts, we had a shot at least to win the race.
"I don't know if that was going to win us the championship, but it was a great year."
Johnson and Gordon were disappointed not to be able to dedicate a championship to the 10 people who died Oct. 24 in the crash of a Hendrick Motorsports plane on the way to a race in Virginia. But Busch, whose younger brother, Kyle, drives for Hendrick in the Busch Series, took care of that, too.
"I'm choked up because there nothing harder in the NASCAR community than what we had to go through a couple weeks ago with Hendrick and the problem they had," Busch said. "I love them truly and I want to dedicate anything I can from this championship to them. My little brother was affected by this, so it hit home."
The end of the race was chaotic as Ryan Newman was knocked out of the lead when a deflating tire sent him hurtling into the wall just two laps before the scheduled finish. That put Tony Stewart on top.
But Stewart's car started sputtering, running out of gas on the last restart, and Biffle, who led a race-high 117 laps, sped ahead with the championship contenders close behind. He held off Johnson by just 0.342 seconds -- about four car-lengths.
Busch had to overcome mistakes and mechanical failures several times during the championship playoff but won the title by being the most consistent of the contenders, finishing in the top 10 in nine of the 10 events.
It wasn't easy, though.
He spun out and nearly wrecked last month in Kansas, but came back to finish sixth. He wrecked on the first lap the next week at Charlotte, drove through oil and had to slide through the grass to avoid a catastrophic accident, yet still wound up fourth.
His engine blew up in Atlanta, leaving him 42nd, his only time outside the top 10 in the championship chase, and he spun out twice the following week at Phoenix on the way to a 10th place finish.
He seemed headed for a miserable day last Sunday at Darlington when the handling on his car went out shortly after the start of the race and, blinded by the setting sun, he ran into Brendan Gaughan. That caused only fender damage, though, and he was able to remain competitive and finish sixth to salvage his spot on top of the standings.
This is the second straight championship for team owner Jack Roush, who had not won a title since entering NASCAR's top series in 1988 until Matt Kenseth prevailed last year.
Earnhardt and Martin began the day trailing Busch by 72 and 82 points, respectively. Late in the race, Martin was as high as fourth, only nine points out of the series lead, but a late pit stop dropped him to 11th in the race and 107 points behind Busch.
Earnhardt never really contended, struggling to 23rd place, 138 points behind Busch for the series championship.