ATLANTA - The 2004 racing season will be remembered as the year of change in NASCAR.
The sport embraced a new series sponsor in Nextel, as well as new gasoline supplier Sunoco. But nothing compared to the changes it made with its championship format.
Attendance and television ratings were at an all-time high as racers elevated their presence in America's sports conscience.
The season also will be remembered for a pair of plane crashes.
Here's a look at the top-10 stories of the year:
1. The Chase for the Championship. Despite plenty of early criticism, one thing became glaringly clear in the final three months of the season: The Chase worked.
The format divided the season into a 26-race regular season and a 10-race playoff among the top-10 drivers. The final 10 races were a boon, especially when five drivers came into the season-finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway within 82 points of one another. Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon all finished among the top five at Homestead, giving Busch the championship and making Johnson the closest second-place finisher in NASCAR history. Johnson was eight points back; Gordon was 16 points behind.
2. Air Disasters. It started with the crash of a Hendrick Motorsports airplane into a Virginia mountainside on Oct. 24 that left 10 dead, and it ended with the crash of a private jet for NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol in Colorado that left his son dead.
The Hendrick plane carried the son, brother and two nieces of team owner Rick Hendrick to the Martinsville Speedway. Ricky Hendrick, the son, died, as did the owner's brother John and his twin daughters, Kimberly and Jennifer.
Team engine builder Randy Dorton, general manager Jeff Turner, DuPont executive Joe Jackson, Tony Stewart's helicopter pilot Scott Lathram and pilots Dick Tracy and Liz Morrison also died.
The plane carrying Ebersol and his two sons crashed after takeoff on Nov. 28 after they had spent a weekend of skiing. Ebersol's 14-year-old son, Teddy, and a pilot and flight attendant died.
Ebersol helped bring NASCAR to his network as part of the $2.6 billion television deal that also includes Fox, TNT and FX networks.
3. Nextel Communications. It took a while for drivers to get used to saying Nextel Cup instead of Winston Cup, but it proved to be a smooth transition. Fans and the racing community were happy with the way Nextel was able to promote the sport in ways Winston, a cigarette company, couldn't.
4. Retirement tours. Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin announced that 2005 will be their last in the Nextel Cup Series.
5. Earnhardt Jr.'s fire. The third-generation driver received third-degree burns to his face and neck in a fiery sports car crash at Infineon Raceway on July 17. He later said he heard his father, Dale Earnhardt, who died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, talk him through the rescue operation.
6. Rockingham dropped. NASCAR shuffled its schedule by adding second annual races at Phoenix and Texas and eliminating the North Carolina Speedway at Rockingham, N.C., from the circuit and taking away the fall race at Darlington Raceway.
7. Diversity. NASCAR hired Magic Johnson to run its diversity program. The sport opened its arms to women and minorities while one group picketed at several racetracks for safer environments for minorities at NASCAR events.
8. Earnhardt Jr.'s bad word. One curse word during a post-race interview cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. 25 points in the championship standings. He won the race at the Talladega Superspeedway and used profanity while comparing his win to his father's accomplishments at the 2.66-mile speedway.
9. Green, white, checkered. NASCAR spiced up the finish of races by adding a green, white, checkered overtime. If the caution comes out during the final five laps - but not on the final lap - the race was extended for a least two laps to better assure a green-flag finish.
10. Jamie McMurray. If not for a 25-point penalty for an illegal trunk shape at Bristol, McMurray would have made the Chase for the Championship. And with the way he finished the season with 13 top-10 finishes in the final 16 races, he would have finished fifth in the final standings. Instead, he had to settle for 11th.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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