The 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup season will likely be remembered more for change than anything else. After more than three decades of sponsorship of the sport's top series, the image of the good-old-boys runnin' round in circles with a Winston hanging from their lips gave way to the ultra-modern sophistication of corporate jets and Nextel cell phones.
With the new sponsorship came the addition of the 10-race playoff to decide the series champion, along with new rules that governed competition on and off the track. It all culminated in a fantastic finish that drew record television audiences.
Here is a look back at the top 10 moments of the 2004 NASCAR season:
1. The Pettys open the Victory Junction Gang Camp
In honor of their son Adam, who was killed in a crash four years ago, Kyle and Pattie Petty opened the Victory Junction Gang Camp in Randleman, North Carolina last June. The camp invites chronic and terminally ill children and their families to spend a fun week in a special racing-inspired environment. More than $24 million was donated by NASCAR fans, media, sponsors and competitors, including Tony Stewart, who donated $1 million. "It's so exciting to see Kyle and Patty's vision come to life finally," Stewart said in June. "I think it will bring Adam's memory back to life even more than it already has."
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the Daytona 500
Ask a driver if he'd rather win the series championship or the Daytona 500, and the season-opening race is likely to get the majority of the votes. Dale Earnhardt Jr. captured the imagination of the entire NASCAR nation when he won the 500 last February, just three years after the death of his father on the last lap of the same race. It was six years to the day since Earnhardt Sr. captured his first 500 win after 20 years of trying. "Good god, I am the Daytona 500 champion," Junior elated in Victory Lane. "I am happy as hell. This has got to be the greatest day of my life." Earnhardt Jr. dominated the week, winning his qualifying 125-lap race, as well as the Busch race. New aero rules in the 500 spread the pack out and Earnhardt was able to sail out to a commanding lead in the closing laps. The win also gave Junior the series points lead for the first time in his career.
3. Kurt Busch wins the inaugural NEXTEL Cup in the last race of the season
When the Chase for the Championship points scheme was unveiled last January, it was met with skepticism from the media and NASCAR competitors alike. The plan was hatched to ensure a climactic conclusion to the season. It worked. Kurt Busch clinched the championship on the final lap of the final race of the season. He edged runner-up Jimmie Johnson by just eight points for the championship, the closest margin of victory in NASCAR history. Busch was sixth in the point standings before the Chase started and catapulted into the lead with a win in the first Chase race at Loudon. He lost a wheel early in the finale at Homestead and held on for a fifth-place finish to clinch the title. "To be able to persevere how we did and overcome everything that we did, I cannot believe this team and everything we have been able to overcome this year," said Busch, who claimed the second straight series championship for owner Jack Roush.
4. Jimmie Johnson wins three in a row during the Chase
Johnson led the circuit with eight wins in 2004, including three in a row during the Chase and four of the final six races of the season. Johnson wheeled his way to a win at Martinsville on October 24 shortly before learning about the horrific plane crash that claimed the lives of 10 people, including nine Hendrick Motorsports employees. One week later, Johnson was victorious again at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "Once I got in the car today I knew exactly what we were supposed to do," said Johnson, who had a special decal on his hood to remember his fallen friends. "I honestly forgot about everything until the checkered flag. I wanted to do the victory lap to honor our friends. It doesn't change anything and we don't get back our friends that we lost. But it makes all of us feel a little better to be able to do something like this."
5. Rusty Wallace gets back to Victory Lane
Wallace had to wait 105 races and more than three years to finally claim his 55th career win last April at Martinsville. Earlier in the race, pole-sitter Jeff Gordon suffered damage to the front of his car when a chunk of concrete came loose from the track. Wallace, who later announced that 2005 would be his last season as a full-time competitor in the Cup series, took the lead from Jimmie Johnson with 45 laps left in the race. "It's been a long time," said Wallace, who has seven wins at Martinsville during his 21-year career. "We have such good cars - it feels good to win again. I had a great day today."
6. SAFER Barriers added to several tracks
In what may be the single biggest advancement in driver safety, several NASCAR tracks installed SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers during the 2005 season. The new wall technology, which absorbs energy during an impact and greatly reduces the chance of driver injury, was first installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002. The walls, which were also added to 15 tracks last year, will be mandatory at all NASCAR events in 2005. "It's hard to argue with the facts," said NASCAR President Mike Helton last December. "The effectiveness of the new barriers is real."
7. Green-white-checkered finish added to the rule book
After a string of yellow-flag finishes, NASCAR implemented a revised version of the green-white-checkered finishes that had been used in the Craftsman Truck Series. Under the fan-friendly new rule, if a race is under caution after the advertised number of laps, two additional green flag laps would be added to the finish. "The green-white-checkered format is an attempt to achieve everyone's goals - a green-flag finish," Helton said. "This change hopefully will provide competitive finishes in the relatively rare occasions it is warranted. Jeff Gordon's win at Indianapolis marked the first time the rule was used in the Cup series. The new rule was also used in Phoenix and in the season-finale at Homestead.
8. Kasey Kahne wins rookie of the year with five second-place finishes
Kahne literally burst onto the Nextel Cup scene in 2004. Named in the off-season to fill the full-time Evernham ride left behind by the semi-retired Bill Elliott, Kahne gave his first preview of things to come in the second race of the year with a photo-finish second place run to Matt Kenseth at Rockingham. Kahne went out the next week and grabbed the pole at Las Vegas and finished second to Kenseth again. "To run second in these races is fine with me right now," Kahne said in Las Vegas. "We want to win, and we're going to win sometime." The NEXTEL Cup rookie of the year went on to finish second four more times during the season while chasing his elusive first win.
9. Jeremy Mayfield wins his way into the Chase
Mayfield gambled on a fuel-only stop in the closing laps of the final "regular season" race at Richmond to claim his first win of the season. The victory vaulted him from 14th in the points to ninth, securing his spot in the Chase for the Championship. "We took a gamble and it paid off for us," Mayfield admitted after the race. Mayfield ran into bad luck during the chase and finished 10th, his highest points finish since 1998.
10. Greg Biffle runs every race on the Cup and Busch calendar
Biffle ended his record-setting season of competing in every race in both the Cup and Busch Series with a win in the Cup finale at Homestead. It was the perfect cap to a three-race weekend for Biffle, who also ran in the Craftsman Truck Series race to start the weekend. "It's been a long year for us," Biffle admitted with his 71-race season finally in the books. "This team has something to prove next year."