NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, Loudon.

09/17/04 Loudon. Ford drivers Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin and Elliott Sadler pose with the Nextel Cup along with the remaining 6 drivers. Photo Credit: Autostock

(KMAland) -- Shaq and Kobe were feuding, Janet Jackson made the FCC angry, Red Sox and Patriots fans were on their way to being the most annoying fanbases in sports and NASCAR was set to make the best move it has ever made. 

Racing is on the horizon, my friends. On Thursday, NASCAR announced a plan to return racing May 17th at Darlington. Over the course of 11 days, NASCAR is planning to run seven races, including three Cup races. Is it the right time to come back? Will it be safe? What will the reaction be? I don't know the answers to those questions, but boy, I am glad to be able to have racing back. 

However, I'm also glad to have the time, and format, to take trips down memory lane and take a deeper dive into the history of NASCAR. This is the 72nd official season of NASCAR. I could probably write about every single season, but you don't want me to do that. I did think it would be cool to look at between 1979 and 2018. So, I set those as my parameters, and let the random number generator do its thing. Today it chose 2004. Unlike the previous breakdowns, I actually remember the 2004 season quite well. 

Links to previous season breakdowns

1997

1984

I will argue that the 2004 NASCAR season was one of the most important in the history of the sport. It was the beginning of a new era with rising superstars, a new series sponsor, late-season tragedy and a thrilling championship format that guaranteed more excitement. Away we go. 

A NEW SPONSOR

For the first time since 1970, NASCAR's premiere series was no longer referred to as "The Winston Cup Series". Winston, a brand of cigarettes from the R.J Reynolds Tobacco Company, was replaced as the titular sponsor by Nextel, a telecommunications company. The change was somewhat surprising. R.J Reynolds and NASCAR had a great relationship and I don't think many people expected it to end. Unfortunately, R.J. Reynolds' contract expired after the 2003 season and NASCAR decided to go a different direction. 

Since 2004, NASCAR has had a handful of title name changes. Nextel merged with Sprint in 2006, and became the Sprint Cup Series in 2008 (love that name, btw). Sprint ended its deal with NASCAR after the 2016 season and Monster Energy assumed naming rights. That partnership only lasted three seasons before Monster left. Now NASCAR has shifted to a tiered-sponsorship model with Busch Beer, Coca Cola, GEICO and Xfinity and is now referred to as the NASCAR Cup Series.

NASCAR had one sponsor, and one title name for 33 seasons. In the 17 seasons since, they've had six different title sponsors and four name changes. Wild. Believe it or not, no longer being referred to as the Winston Cup Series was not even the biggest change NASCAR made in 2004.

NO MORE BORING POINTS BATTLES

I could probably write 2,000 words on this topic alone. Prior to 2004, NASCAR ran off a season-long points system. It was traditional (and boring), but had flaws. The main flaw being the possibility of a driver completely dominating the points battle. In four of the five years prior to the 2004 season, the championship had already been clinched prior to the final race of the season and some seasons over the past 20 years featured little to no drama for the championship. For example, 

--1986 & 1987: Dale Earnhardt dominated both seasons, winning the championships by 288 and 489 points respectively. 

--1994: Earnhardt captures his seventh championship in rather boring fashion, beating Mark Martin by 444 points. Earnhardt clinched the championship with two races remaining. 

--1998: Jeff Gordon won a remarkable 13 races and beat Mark Martin by 364 points. Only five drivers finished within 1,000 points of Gordon. 

--1999: Dale Jarrett clinches championship with one race remaining courtesy of a 211-point lead over Bobby Labonte

--2000: Labonte's turn to clinch a championship early. 

--2001: Gordon dominates the summer and wins the title by 344 points over Tony Stewart. Gordon clinched the title with one race remaining

--2003: Matt Kenseth puts together one of the strangest championship seasons in the history of NASCAR, and perhaps single-handedly led to the new points system. Kenseth won only one race (and it was the third race of the season), but was the most consistent driver all year and cruised to the championship. The final margin between Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson was only 90 points, but that's because Kenseth blew an engine in the final race. He had already clinched the title with a 226-point lead. 

The old points system didn't always breed boring points battles, , 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1996 had tons of drama, but NASCAR was bringing a new sponsor into the sport, and they could not gamble on the likelihood of the final dozen races being basically irrelevant in the grand scheme. If you knew in October who would win the Super Bowl, how inclined would you be to watch football all season? You wouldn't, do lie to yourself. 

NASCAR had to make the change, and they did. Speaking of that change...

Following Kenseth's odd 2003 season, NASCAR shook things up and made "traditionalists" (I refer to them as grumps) angry. NASCAR decided to split the season into a regular season (26 races) and a postseason (10 races). After 26 races, the top ten in points would qualify for the "Chase for the Nextel Cup".

Points would be reset in five-point intervals and the ten drivers would vie for the championship. NASCAR has gone onto revamp the system several times since then, and have now perfected it with the playoff-style format, but the Chase was a good start.

There would be no more championships being essentially decided with six races left because ten drivers likely had a strong shot with six races left. As you'll see later, the 2004 version of the Chase created all the drama NASCAR hoped for, and needed. Onward.

THE DAYTONA 500

I shamefully have to admit that seven-year-old Trevor was building a snowman during the 2004 Daytona 500 and I didn't watch most of it live (don't ask me how I remember that). Fortunately, my mother recorded it and there's this thing called the internet that I've figured out how to use since then. 

In terms of excitement, this was a relatively boring race. Greg Biffle won the pole for the 46th running of the Great American Race, but had to surrender his pole-position because of an engine change. Tony Stewart controlled the race, leading 98 of the 200 laps. When Stewart wasn't leading, Dale Earnhardt. Jr probably was. At the time, Earnhardt. Jr had built himself into the most dominant restrictor-plate track (Daytona and Talladega) drivers on the circuit. Five of his nine victories had come at Daytona or Talladega, but he had yet to win the Daytona 500. 

There were only four cautions and the race went caution-free for the final 120 laps. However, defending Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip was caught in "The Big One" on lap 72 and rolled several times. I somehow forgot about this wreck. Take a look.

The long green-flag run allowed the field to get spread out, which is rare at restrictor plate tracks. Earnhardt and Stewart controlled the race while surprise rookie Scott Wimmer lurked in third. Earnhardt. Jr took the lead from Stewart with 20 laps remaining. Stewart and Earnhardt. Jr battled it for a lap or so, but Earnhardt Jr. eventually took the lead and pulled away for his first Daytona 500 victory. 

You can watch the finish here.

Some nuggets about the 2004 Daytona 500

-- I'm not sure if this is considered a nugget, but Allen Bestwick's call of the final lap is great. He is hands down my favorite voice in NASCAR and I wish he'd come back.

-- Scott Wimmer's third-place finish was the best finish of his career and his only top-five finish in 111 starts and it came in just his 11th Cup start. 

-- Earnhardt. Jr's victory marked the third Daytona 500 victory in four years for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Teammate Michael Waltrip was the 2001 and 2003 victor. 

-- This was the third consecutive Daytona 500 where the pole-sitter did not lead a lap. Biffle paid the price for his engine change and finished 12th. 

-- Earnhardt. Jr's victory came exactly six years to the day after his father, Dale Sr, finally won the Daytona 500 in his 20th attempt. 

GOODBYE, ROCKINGHAM

The 2004 NASCAR season marked the final race at my favorite track to race at on NASCAR Thunder 2004. The one-mile track located in Rockingham, North Carolina had been a NASCAR staple since 1965. However, it's attendance numbers were not good and its owner, International Speedway Corporation, which was created by NASCAR founder Bill France. Sr and ultimately sold to NASCAR owner Roger Penske, felt the need to move one of Rockingham's two races to California Speedway. At the time, Rockingham still had one date on the schedule, but the track's status was uncertain and it would soon fall victim to one of the most baffling lawsuits in sports history. 

In 2002, Francis Ferko, a shareholder of Speedway Motorsports, LLC, which owned multiple tracks including Texas, sued NASCAR on the grounds of antitrust. Ferko hired the famous Johnnie Cochran's law firm to represent him and alleged that NASCAR was running a monopoly with tracks they basically owned. 

SMI actually had nothing to do with the lawsuit, but they agreed with Ferko's allegation. The suit was a black eye for NASCAR and they ultimately settled out of court. ISC sold Rockingham to SMI so Rockingham's lone race could be transferred to Texas. ISC would also close and sell one track, Nazareth Speedway in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. And one of the two races hosted by ISC-owned Darlington Raceway was transferred to SMI's Phoenix Raceway. 

While his home track was granted the second race he wished for, Ferko grew to regret his decision to sue NASCAR. The publicity he received ultimately cost him his job and his marriage and many people were not happy with him for his role in replacing one of NASCAR's most iconic and entertaining tracks with a boring cookie-cutter. 

Ironically, SMI took advantage of Ferko's lawsuit without ever really even acknowledging Ferko. They might as well have told him "Thanks for making us millions of dollars, now get lost."

The Ferko Lawsuit had not been finalized before the final race at Rockingham, but the writing was on the wall. The final race did not disappoint, though. The 2004 Subway 400 had a memorable wreck and an epic finish. Journeymen Carl Long rolled multiple times, which was rare for a track as small as Rockingham.

The final lap at Rockingham was one to remember. Defending champion Matt Kenseth and rookie Kasey Kahne battled fiercely with Kenseth edging Kahne at the line by ten-thousandths of a second. Check it out for yourself.

THE REGULAR SEASON

The first 26 races of the season were primarily dominated by Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt. Jr and Jeff Gordon as they combined to win 13 regular-season races. The Chase format saw many drivers vying to crack the top 10 after the cutoff race at Richmond. Over the final two races of the regular season, nine drivers were battling for five spots. Elliott Sadler secured his spot in the Chase with a win at Fontana while Kurt Busch's strong run also clinched his position. Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Jeremy Mayfield and Kevin Harvick entered the regular season finale at Richmond separated by 76 total points with only three spots up for grabs. 

Mayfield put together one of the most remarkable performances I can recall in a long time, dominating the race and claiming the victory. His victory did just enough to put him in the Chase. Martin finished fifth and had no trouble clinching his spot. The final spot went to Newman, who despite a 20th place finish, edged McMurray by 15 points. Kahne was bumped out of the Chase after a disappointing 24th-place finish. 

Chase qualifiers: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt. Jr., Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield, Ryan Newman

THE CHASE (AND A TRAGEDY)

The first race ever held in the Chase format was held on September 19th, 2004 at New Hampshire International Speedway. Kurt Busch dominated the race, leading 155 of 300 laps to gain the victory. Ryan Newman, Jeremy Mayfield and Tony Stewart immediately found themselves in danger. Newman blew a motor while Mayfield and Stewart were involved in accidents. 

Newman bounced back with a win the next week at Dover while Matt Kenseth crashed. Jeff Gordon, Busch and Dale Earnhardt. Jr were separated by 18 points with eight races remaining. 

Earnhardt. Jr won the following race at Talladega, but at a price. He dominated leading 78 laps and held off Kevin Harvick for the win. The victory would have given him the points lead, but he slipped up during his post-race interview with NBC and said one of the seven dirty words. He was fined by NASCAR and docked 25 points, which handed the points lead to Busch. 

Busch, who was perhaps the fourth-best car during the regular season, stayed consistent throughout the Chase and led the points with only six races remaining. Earnhardt. Jr. and Gordon were 24 and 74 points behind respectively. It was shaping up to be a three-car battle for the title, until Jimmie Johnson woke up. 

Today, we know Johnson as arguably the greatest driver in the history of NASCAR, but he was an up-start in 2004. He made his Cup debut in 2002 and was a serious championship contender before struggling down the stretch. He finished second to Kenseth in 2003 and was touted as a favorite heading into 2004. Johnson won three regular-season races and was second in points after Richmond, but he struggled to start the Chase.

A blown engine at Talladega and a crash at Kansas put Johnson in ninth place, 247 points back of Busch. He was all-but eliminated..until he wasn't.

He held off Gordon at Charlotte to claim the victory while Gordon, Earnhardt and Busch were second, third and fourth respectively. Johnson was now 227 points behind with four races left. 

Johnson's next victory was a race that is remembered for all the wrong reasons. At Martinsville, he took the lead with 60 laps remaining and held on for the lead. Busch finished fifth and expanded his points lead to 96 points over Gordon, 125 over Earnhardt and 207 over Johnson. However, that's not what people remember about this race.

Soon after Johnson claimed the checkered flag, NBC's broadcast announced the traditional victory lane interview would not take place. NBC then interviewed a representative of NASCAR, who broke the news to the world that a plane, carrying several employees from Hendrick Motorsports, the team Johnson and Gordon raced for, had not arrived in Martinsville, Virginia as scheduled.

It was soon revealed the plane had crashed and all 10 members aboard the plane had died, including Ricky Hendrick, the son of car-owner Rick Hendrick. Rick's brother, John, and John's daughters, Kimberly and Jennifer. I was eight when this happened and I still remember it rather well, to this day it still gives me a somber feeling just thinking about it. NBC did a touching tribute prior to the race at Atlanta the next week. 

Following the terrible events of October 24th, 2004, it felt like Johnson was on a run of destiny. He captured an emotional victory a week later at Atlanta, making a late pass over a dominant Mark Martin. Busch blew an engine while Earnhardt and Gordon both had struggles. Johnson's victory was his third victory and put him second in points, 59 points behind Busch. Gordon, Martin and Earnhardt were also close behind with just three races remaining. 

Earnhardt snapped Johnson's winning streak at Phoenix a week later. Busch overcame an early-race spin to finish 10th. But his points lead was now down to 41 points over Gordon, 47 over Earnhardt and 48 over Johnson. 

A week later at Darlington, Johnson picked up his fourth victory in five races, leading 124 laps. Martin finished second, Gordon third, Busch sixth and Earnhardt 11th. Five drivers had a shot at the title heading into the championship races at Homestead-----1. Busch 6,346 points, 2. Johnson -18, 3. Gordon -21, 4. Earnhardt 72, 5. Martin -82. 

Speaking of that race.

ONE OF THE GREATEST RACES IN THE HISTORY OF NASCAR

In my opinion, the 2004 Ford 400 is one of the top five, maybe top three races in the history of NASCAR. Kurt Busch entered the race as the points leader and won the pole. That turned out to be a huge deal because he led four laps, which at the time gave him five bonus points.

Sometimes you need luck to win a championship. Coming into Homestead, it felt like the only luck Busch had was bad luck, but that changed on lap 94. Busch was running exactly where he needed to do to clinch the championship, but had been complaining of a vibration. He thought he had a flat tire, but it turned out to be a loose wheel. Busch was prepared to enter the pits and change tires, which would have cost him a ton of time, when one of the strangest (and luckiest) things in the history of NASCAR happened.

Busch was just about to enter the pits when his entire right front wheel fell off, he barely missed clobbering the pit wall while the wheel rolled onto the track and brought out a caution. Busch was able to baby his car back to pit road under yellow, change tires and stay on the lead lap. If the tire would have come off five seconds later, it would have rolled onto pit road and a caution probably would not have come out, which means Busch would have probably lost at least one lap. See for yourself.

Remember what I said earlier about Johnson and destiny? Well, after his near-disaster, it seemed like Busch was destined for the title. Busch's teammate, Greg Biffle, dominated the race and won the race but nobody remembers that. 

Some crafty strategy put Tony Stewart out front in the closing laps, but a caution with two laps to go forced NASCAR to implement overtime. Stewart was the leader, Biffle second, Gordon fourth, Johnson fifth and Busch sixth. Busch was leading Gordon and Johnson by 16 and 18 points respectively. 

Gordon, Johnson and Busch gained a spot just before the green flag when Dale Jarrett ran out of gas by running third. The restart was a thing of wonder. Gordon peeked to the inside of Biffle and they made slight contact. Biffle then went to the outside of Stewart and took the lead, bringing Gordon and Johnson with him.

Johnson moved to second at the white flag, but was still eight points behind Busch. The way the points system worked at the time, Johnson could have tied Busch if he passed Biffle and won. The tiebreaker was most wins and Johnson would have had nine to Busch's three.

No tiebreaker was needed. Biffle sailed into the sunset with Johnson behind him. Gordon took third. Busch was fifth, edging Johnson for the championship by eight points, the closest margin in NASCAR history. Gordon was only 16 points behind in third. Here's the finish.

The thrilling finish to the 2004 Nextel Cup Series season was exactly what NASCAR was hoping for when they implemented the Chase. It gave the format vindication that it would create excitement and it certainly did. 

SOME FUN STATS

Rookie of the Year: Kasey Kahne

Most Popular Driver: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Most Wins: Jimmie Johnson (8)

Most Top 5's: Jimmie Johnson (20)

Most Top 10's: Jeff Gordon (25)

Most Poles: Ryan Newman (9)

Most Laps Led: Jimmie Johnson (1,312)

Drivers with Wins: Jimmie Johnson (8), Dale Earnhardt. Jr (6), Jeff Gordon (5), Kurt Busch (3), Greg Biffle (2), Elliott Sadler (2), Matt Kenseth (2), Tony Stewart (2), Ryan Newman (2), Jeremy Mayfield (1), Mark Martin (1), Rusty Wallace (1), Joe Nemechek (1)

OTHER SERIES

A decade before he made a surprising run in the Cup Series, Mayetta, New Jersey native Martin Truex. Jr. soared into the Busch Series (now Xfinity). Truex drove for Chance2 Motorsports, owned by Dale Earnhardt. Jr and his sister, Kelley. Truex hit the ground running in 2004, winning six races and claiming the Busch Series crown. Ironically, his closest contender for the championship contender would be one of his fiercest Cup contenders years later.

Kyle Busch, the younger brother of Kurt, entered the 2004 season as an 18-year-old thrust into a full-time Busch Series ride at Hendrick Motorsports. Busch's talent was immediately on display, winning in his 18th career start. Busch would go on to win four more races in 2004. However, as he typically did early in his career, his dominant victories were matched by inconsistent finishes. He finished worse than 20th three times while Truex only finished worse than 14th twice. Truex led Busch by 78 points with 10 races remaining and gained nearly 100 points on Busch over the next seven races. Truex ultimately beat Busch by 230 points. 

I'm sure it was used before 2004, but this is when I was introduced to the term "Buschwacker". See, Buschwacker referred to a Cup driver who raced in the Busch Series. They were obviously more talented and likely in the best cars, so as you might expect, they won a lot. 

Cup drivers Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt. Jr, Michael Waltrip, Robby Gordon and Joe Nemechek combined to win 18 of the 34 Busch Series races. 

2004 also marked the 10th anniversary of the Craftsman Truck Series. The season started with some kid from Columbia, Missouri named Carl Edwards winning at Daytona. Edwards won three truck races in 2004 and would make his Cup debut at Michigan in August before joining Roush Racing's Cup team full time in 2005.

The points battle came down to Truck Series veteran Dennis Setzer and Bobby Hamilton, a former Cup driver racing for a Truck team he owned. Hamilton won four of the first 15 races and posted four top-fives in the final seven races to edge Setzer for the title by 46 points. The series had a bunch of parity in 2004. Thirteen different drivers won the 25 races and nobody posted more than 12 top fives. What a time.

There you go, 3,700 words on one of the most memorable seasons in NASCAR history. That was fun. What year will be next? Hint: it is in the 1990s. 

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