HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Stock-car racing got a new champion Sunday at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, and in the process it may have gotten a glimpse of a champion in the making.
Tony Stewart clinched the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship by finishing 18th in the Ford 400, and Kurt Busch closed out the season with his third victory in the last five races to solidify his position as a leading contender for next year's title.
After finishing 27th in the standings during a disappointing rookie season a year ago, Busch rallied from 12th-place to third in the final championship standings in 2002. He did it by winning four races and finishing the season with eight top-seven finishes in the last 10 races.
"What a day, what a year, what a transition from that rookie year," the 24-year-old driver said.
Busch started on the pole, fell out of the top five during the middle of the race, then used a two-tire pit stop at the end of the race to put him in position to win.
Ryan Newman skipped that final pit stop during a caution for John Andretti's blown engine. Although that gave him the lead, it meant he had to finish the final 38 laps on old tires. Busch, who took on two tires in the final stop, re-started second.
"I wore Ryan down," Busch said. "I love race strategy. I was focused today on third place in the points. When I finally blocked that out, that's when we went. I love to manipulate people to get them to move their cars around by making them think. I knew he was on old tires, so I had time on my side."
Busch pressed Newman for several laps until Newman's tires were too hot, too worn to fight back. Once Busch got around him with 11 laps to go, he took off to a comfortable 150-yard cushion over Joe Nemechek to earn $297,100.
Newman, who vetoed car owner Roger Penske's advice for new tires, faded to a sixth place finish.
"We developed this loose condition I wasn't expecting," Busch said of his mid-race problems where the rear tires lose traction in the corners. "There was a struggle throughout the day to get the car right. Jimmy Fennig (crew chief) made the right calls and got it right. We kept working on it.
"It was an interesting race. Nobody was gambling; everyone was scrambling."
Nemechek, who learned this week he will be retained at Hendrick Motorsports to drive the No. 25 next season, led four times for a race-best 111 laps.
"We were coming on strong," he said. "Next year is going to be a good year for us."
Jeff Burton finished third, followed by Mark Martin in fourth, Jeff Gordon in fifth, Newman in sixth, Bill Elliott in seventh, Jimmie Johnson in eighth, Elliott Sadler in ninth and Bobby Hamilton in 10th.
Stewart came into the final race with an 89-point lead over Martin in the championship. Although Martin finished ahead of Stewart for the third consecutive race, it wasn't nearly enough to keep Stewart from winning his first stock car championship and give car owner Joe Gibbs his second title in three years.
"You never knew until the last lap," Stewart said after finishing the campaign 38 points ahead of Martin. "We really weren't that good today. We typically go really fast here, but I don't know what it was today. We couldn't get going for some reason."
Stewart was never in trouble, especially since he only had to finish among the top 22 to clinch.
Martin, who finished second in the points for the fourth time in his career, said his team fought for every point from the beginning of the test season in January until the final lap Sunday.
"I never really looked at this thing this year and allowed myself to think I could win it," Martin said. "I had so many people who wanted me to win it so bad, I felt like I would let them down. I guess what I want to say is, 'thank you, thank you.' "
With the victory Busch locked up third place in the standings, a spot worth at least $1.05 million in postseason awards. He said his team is so eager to keep their momentum, they've already got test sessions planned for Talladega, Ala., Daytona Beach and Las Vegas before the start of the 2003 season in February.
"There was no one big turnaround from August," Busch said of a mid-season slump that brought consecutive finishes of 41st, 41st and 39th. "Now, we have all that momentum heading into next year. As things progress, as things develop, if we don't win a championship (next year), we won't be disappointed. I think I have time on my side."
There's not much time, however. The racing season, the longest in all of professional sports, resumes with the Budweiser Shootout all-star race at the Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 8.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.