HOMESTEAD, Fla. - There were plenty of doubters when NASCAR announced its new playoff-style championship format before the start of the 2004 season.
The new 10-man, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship was contrived, they said. It wouldn't reflect the real champion like the full season points race had done under the system in place since 1975.
On Sunday, after a wild, dramatic day of racing in the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it would likely have been hard to find anyone who doubted that the Chase was a success.
Kurt Busch, a brash, hard-nosed racer who has not always endeared himself to the fans, overcame a broken wheel, a messed-up pit stop and strong challenges from Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to win the closest championship in NASCAR history and the cheers of the sellout crowd.
It also drew a larger television audience than normal. The race earned a 5.6 overnight rating for NBC, the best in the race's six-year history and the best performance ever for a NASCAR race against NFL football on Sunday.
Johnson lost the battle with Busch by just eight points, with teammate Gordon another eight points back for the closest three-way finish in NASCAR's 56 years. Of course, that's exactly what the Chase was set up to accomplish, reconfiguring the standings to separate the top 10 drivers by just 45 points when the playoff began.
In other seasons, Johnson's series-leading eight race wins and 19 top-five finishes might have been the difference. Or perhaps Gordon's consistency over the entire 36-race schedule, including a series-leading 24 top-10 finishes would have given him a fifth championship.
Figuring the points under the old system, Gordon would have won the title by 47 points over Johnson, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. third and Busch fourth, 247 behind. But that does not take into account that the contenders all adopted different strategies for testing and experimenting with parts and pieces to prepare for the Chase.
Busch, who was seventh in the points when the Chase started, won the title by overcoming mistakes, crashes and mechanical failures throughout the 10-race finish, racing to nine top-10 finishes and leading the points from the third playoff race to the finish.
"Kurt has done an awesome job on these last 10 races," said crew chief Jimmy Fennig, who also won his first title after helping Busch's Roush Racing teammate Mark Martin to three runner-up finishes. "He kept his cool."
Johnson had his problems, too, falling behind by 247 points after the first four races of the Chase. He got back into it by winning four of five races heading into the finale.
No regrets, though.
"It was an incredible season for our team," Johnson said. "We won a lot of races and that's something I'm very proud of. I set a personal goal to try to win five races this year and then to have eight overall and four in the Chase is pretty amazing.
"We were eight points away from the championship. But, if we look back on the season and try to pick apart 'should'ves, would'ves,' it wouldn't be right. We showed up and gave 100 percent and it is what it is."
Johnson was openly critical about the new points system that divided the season into two separate sections, with the first 26 races determining the 10 contenders and the last 10 for the championship. But the intensity and drama of the last few races had him singing a different tune.
"I think it's going to add some longevity to the driver' careers, especially if you don't get off to a good start in the season," Johnson said. "The top five guys, at least, don't have to worry about points like they did in the past. That's something Jeff brought to my attention.
"You didn't have that yearlong stress to worry about. I look at that and I think that is going to be good for years to come. I think, with all the excitement we had built around this race, there are more positives than the negatives that I spoke about earlier in the year. In the end, I think it will be better for everybody."
The biggest objection to the new system was the fear that one bad race during the Chase would eliminate a contender. Both Busch, who had an engine failure and finished 42nd last month in Atlanta, and Johnson, who had consecutive finishes of 37th and 32nd in October at Talladega and Kansas City, proved that one wrong.
Some people would like to see race winners get a bigger bonus than the 10-point edge they now get over the second-place finisher. Others would like to see the contenders scored separately from the rest of the field once the Chase begins.
Brian France, just completing his first full season as NASCAR's chairman, was the architect of the new format. He said he is extremely pleased with the way it has played out, and big changes are not likely.
"We may end up making some slight adjustments next season, but nothing very noticeable," he said before the final race.
Considering the result, that will be just fine with most everybody.
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