The Ford 300 at Homestead Miami Speedway lived up to expectations, as the 2003 Grand Finale for the Busch series season was something that will be talked about for years to come. Heading into the event, no fewer than six competitors had a ...
The Ford 300 at Homestead Miami Speedway lived up to expectations, as the 2003 Grand Finale for the Busch series season was something that will be talked about for years to come.
Heading into the event, no fewer than six competitors had a mathematical opportunity to claim the championship, and in the end, it was a day of "firsts".
In his first full season in the series, Washington native Kasey Khane outclassed the field to claim his first victory in the series.
Khane, driving for Akins Motorsports started third, and ran competitively throughout the event, taking the lead for the first time on lap 172, and never looking back.
"It's the last race of the year," said Kahne, who won his first Busch Series race in his fifty-fourth career start. "Our team has as much momentum as any team going into next year. It feels real good, and it's good that we won and are able to go out on a good note."
Khane has been the focus of several silly season rumors, putting the young driver out of a Ford, and into an Evernham owned Dodge. Ford, has aggressively worked to dispel the rumors, however many eyebrows were raised as Evernham served as spotter for the team during seasons final race.
Finishing behind Khane, were New Jersey's Martin Truex Jr, Bobby Hamilton Jr, Jason Leffler, and Aston Lewis.
Truex, who scored his second consecutive top two finishes, was delighted by his teams performance.
"I just want to thank all these guys on the Chance 2 team and Dale Jr. for giving me the opportunity", said Truex. " This is like a win for us. We had to start in the back. It was a good day for us but we just weren't quite good enough on those short runs. When you come from last to finish second you know the track's pretty good. We're pretty happy about it."
The battle for the win took a back seat to the chase for the championship, as the question of who would be crowned victorious remained uncertain until the closing laps of the event.
Of the six contenders, Scott Riggs, was the first to loose sight of the prize as a lap one crash dashed his hopes for the elusive title.
Ironically, it was a teammate car that put Riggs out. Roush truck series competitor Jon Wood, who signed a one race deal will PPC racing got loose on the first lap, collecting his teammate, and ending his title dreams.
"It's disheartening, especially when we've got a teammate, gave him an opportunity to ride there," Riggs said. Riggs finished the event forty-first; sixth place in the series final results.
Riggs's other teammate Jason Keller, as a championship contender never seemed to have a handle on his car. Keller fell a lap down to the leader early, and struggled with suspension problems throughout the day. He eventually finishing twenty-forth, fifth in the series standings.
Forth in the standings, was Bobby Hamilton Jr. Hamilton appeared to be out of the hunt until a late season charge put the second generation driver in the thick of the points hunt, eighty nine points out heading into Holmstead. Hamilton and Team Rensi gave a final push, leading the race, and by virtue of the third place finish bumped up two positions in the final standings.
Third, was former Truck Series Champion Ron Hornaday. Hornaday struggled at Miami. The AC Delco driver wrecked his primary car in practice, forcing him to start from the rear of the field. The California native charged through the pack, and led the event through pit strategy, but in the end a fifteenth place finish was all the team could muster.
"I'm not disappointed in the team by any means. I'm disappointed in myself", said Hornaday. " I wrecked the car in practice and we had to bring the back up out. I thought we were doing real good. We bought that car up to the front and we had great pit stops all day. But I just couldn't get the hang of it. One time we'd be loose getting in and the next time we'd be tight. I don't know. I just probably tried way too hard and I should have just slowed up and let the car do its work".
Runner up in the championship chase was 1994 series champion, David Green. Green, who appeared to be out of contention, as he fell three laps down as a result of a flat right rear tire, and subsequent penalty battled back to be within four on track positions of claiming his second title finished ninth.
"After we got our laps back after the first of the race when we ran over that debris from that first wreck and had a flat right rear tire and I was trying to get in the pits but everybody was all around me", noted Green. " I had to do what I had to do out there and I didn't spin out. It's all over right now, but 2003 has been a year that my team has brought me back to life. Nobody would even give me a shot last year. And when my team said it's not over yet, the game was still on. That shows how good my team is. We came from three laps down."
In another irony, Green, who was all but out of racing, saw his career resurrected as replacement driver for Hendrick Motorsports on their Busch effort, after driver Ricky Hendrick retired as result of injury. Green's final race for the team in 2002 took place just hours before team owner Rick Hendrick signed a young North Carolina driver named Brian Vickers to lead there 2003 championship effort.
An effort that was realized, as Vickers performance at Holmstead left him fourteen markers ahead of Green to claim his first NASCAR Championship.
Vickers, who started the event sixth, struggled early with handling, further compounded by incidental sheet metal damage on the right front.
Vickers, who stopped in the pits under during a green flag run, got caught a lap down in twentieth place, benefited from NASCAR'S "Lucky-Dog" rule as a late race caution put the driver back on the lead lap, and giving the team time to repair the damaged race car.
In the end, the championship came down to the driver. Vickers did what he needed to do. He wheeled his Monte-Carlo up to the eleventh position, keeping sight of his rival David Green who needed to distance himself by five spots ahead of Vickers to secure the title.
"It was a great day for us" said Vickers. "It was a year ago at this time that Ricky was fighting to get me in the car. I appreciate it and all the support from Hendrick Motorsports. This is the best organization out there and the support we got from GMAC and Chevrolet made all the difference. This team never gave up. We had some down times. We left Daytona 42nd in points and ended the year in first. I'm so proud of our team. I'm usually a very calm person and don't get nervous very often. But today was probably one of the most nerve-wracking races I've ever had", noted the 2003 Champion.
By winning the Championship, Vickers becomes the youngest ever to claim a NASCAR top division title. His season ended with three wins, thirteen top fives, and twenty-one top ten finishes. The championship is the first Busch title for Hendrick Motorsports, adding to five Winston Cup titles, and three Craftsman Truck Championships. Hendrick Motorsports joins Roush Racing, and Richard Childress Racing as the only three organizations to claim championships in all three major series.
Vickers will continue with Hendrick Motorsports, driving the number twenty-five Nextel Cup entry in the 2004 season.
The 2003 Busch series championship was the second closet finish in the series history.
-By: Thomas Chemris