Joe Gibbs Racing
When Joe Gibbs returned to the NFL sidelines to coach the Washington Redskins, he turned the day-to-day operations of Joe Gibbs Racing over to his son J.D. And, well, 2004 wasn't what you'd call a success for J.D. In fact, you'd call it a failure. One of the Gibbs drivers, Tony Stewart, showed some promise in the middle of season -- at one point Stewart won two races in five starts -- but those were Stewart's only two victories of the year and he was a non-factor in the Chase for the Championship. The other Gibbs driver, Bobby Labonte, struggled all season (he only had five Top 5 finishes) and finished the year 12th in points. Considering that both Stewart and Labonte have won a championship in the recent past, this was a stunning fall for the Gibbs team. Next season will be a crucial one for J.D., because if he can't turn around the team's fortunes, his drivers may develop a serious case of wanderlust.
IRL driver Tony Kanaan
Not a lot of ink has been spilled about Kanaan because he races in the Indy Racing League (if you don't live in Indianapolis or Brazil, you probably don't follow the IRL), but in 2004 Kanaan had what must be considered one of the most spectacular seasons in the history of motor sports. Not only did Kanaan, a native of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, become the first driver in any major racing series to complete every single lap in a single season -- he turned all 3,035 -- but he also set series marks for most Top 5 finishes (15) and most laps led (889) en route to winning his first IRL championship. Though the competitiveness of open-wheel racing has never been the same since the sport split into two feuding bodies in 1996 (IRL and CART), you still gotta admire what Kanaan was able to accomplish in '04.
NASCAR's points allocation
We love NASCAR's new Chase for the Championship playoff format. It did exactly what it was supposed to do: inject a dose of late-season excitement into the sport. But now NASCAR needs to tweak how it distributes points for each race. Specifically, NASCAR needs to reward winning by giving a 15-point bonus to the racer who makes it to Victory Lane. As it stands, there's only a 10-point difference between finishing first and second. This means being a runner-up really doesn't hurt you in the Chase for the Championship. Think about it: Jimmie Johnson won four races in the Chase while Kurt Busch won one. But because J.J. didn't run in the Top 5 as many times as Busch did, Johnson finished second in the standings. We think that's wrong. In most sports winning is an all-or-nothing proposition. NASCAR needs to move a little more in that direction.
Before this year, Busch was best known for serving as Jimmy Spencer's punching bag after the two tangled on the track in '03. Busch, in fact, angered a lot of drivers with his overzealousness in '03. But before this season he met with a stress management specialist who taught him how to cope with dicey situations. Clearly, Busch was a different driver -- and a different person -- in '04. He showed a veteran's patience all year long on the track and he appeared more at ease when dealing with the media off of it. For the last two years everyone in the Cup garage knew Busch was ridiculously talented, but the consensus was that his lack of maturity was holding him back. Well, that wasn't the case in '04 ... and don't be surprised in '05 if he becomes the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 1998 to repeat as champion.
No, JJ didn't win NASCAR's Chase for the Championship in 2004. But if you look at the entire 36-race season, he was clearly the most dominant driver on the circuit. He had more wins (eight) and Top-5 finishes (20) than any other driver and at one point in the "regular" season he held a 232-point lead. Eventual champion Busch was more consistent than Johnson in the Chase -- Busch finished in the Top 10 in nine of the 10 Chase races -- but at one point in the Chase Johnson won four of five races, becoming the first driver since 1999 to pull off such a feat. So the nod here goes to Johnson.
Seeing Rick Hendrick at NASCAR's season finale
No one in motor sports -- check that, no one in all of sports -- had a more difficult year than Rick Hendrick, the owner of Hendrick Motorsports. On Oct. 24 a Beech King Air 200 turboprop owned by Hendrick crashed into fog-shrouded Bull Mountain in southeastern Virginia. All 10 passengers, who were on their way to the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway, were killed. It was the worst catastrophe in the history of American motor sports, and it hit Hendrick especially hard. The fatalities included Hendrick's only son (Ricky Hendrick), his brother (John Hendrick), two of his nieces (Jennifer and Kimberly Hendrick), and his team's chief engine builder who was also his best friend (Randy Dorton). After the tragedy Hendrick stayed away from the track. No one expected him to return, but there he was at Homestead, sitting atop Jeff Gordon's pit box, supporting Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as they tried to win the championship. If either of the Hendrick drivers had won the title it would have been perhaps the most touching story in NASCAR history; as it stands, it was just heart-warming to see Hendrick -- one of the good guys in the sport -- back doing what he enjoys most.
How good will Kasey Kahne be?
As a rookie in the Nextel Cup in '04, Kahne consistently ran near the front of the pack. Problem was, he often was a little too aggressive, which led several mishaps that cost him chances to win races. Still, young Kasey finished second a series-high five times in '04 and, with a year of experience under his belt, he'll be a threat to win it all in '05."This kid is the next Jeff Gordon," says former champion Darrell Waltrip."I haven't seen a young kid with his kind of skills in a long, long time." Neither have we.