HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Kurt Busch overcame a broken wheel early in Sunday's race and came back to win the closest championship in NASCAR history.
Busch had to go into overtime to win it, with a late caution flag forcing NASCAR to run four extra laps to finish the race under a green flag. It made no difference, as Busch held on to finish fifth behind teammate Greg Biffle and wrap up the Nextel Cup title by just eight points over Jimmie Johnson and 16 over Jeff Gordon.
The new champion came into the season-ending Ford 400 leading Johnson by 18 points and Gordon by 21. It looked as if that 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 racetrack on the 93rd of 271 laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Somehow, Busch kept his car off the wall as the tire came off the car and bounced over the wall and onto the track, bringing out a caution flag and allowed him to stop for repairs without losing a lap. He fell to 28th, but fought his way back among the leaders and that was just good enough for the 26-year-old driver to win his first Cup title. The closest previous 1-2 finish 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.
"It had a big vibration those last 50 laps and it held on. 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."
The championship battle was too close to call through most of the race, with the lead changing several times - sometimes on consecutive laps. At one point, with 75 laps remaining, the top four drivers were separated by only nine points.
Johnson and four-time champion Gordon gave it everything they had, finishing second and third after Biffle grabbed the lead on a restart on lap 270 and held off Johnson in the last event in NASCAR's new 10-man, 10-race playoff-style championship.
"With the 97 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 the last five races coming into 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 the 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 on lap 265, 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 restart on lap 270 and Biffle, who led a race-high 117 laps, sped into the lead 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 Chase for the Nextel Cup championship 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, and he ended up 42nd for his only finish outside the top 10 in the championship.
The following week, Busch spun out twice at Phoenix on the way to a 10th-place finish and seemed headed for a miserable day last Sunday at Darlington when the handling on his car went shortly after the start of the race. Blinded by the setting sun, he ran into Brendan Gaughan, causing fender damage, but still remained competitive and finished sixth, salvaging 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.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin also went into the race with an outside shot at the championship, trailing Busch by 72 and 82 points, respectively. Late in the race, with everybody on different strategies, Martin was only nine points out of the lead. But a late pit stop relegated him to an 11th-place finish and he wound up 107 points behind Busch.
Earnhardt never really contended, struggling to a 23rd-place finish and ending the year 138 points behind the champion.