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IT BEGAN, as seismic shifts in sports often do, with a question. In November 2003 Brian France, the chairman of NASCAR, was sitting in Mark Dyer's Charlotte office on an otherwise unremarkable day in the history of American motor sports. They talked shop; they talked family. Ordinary stuff. But then Dyer, NASCAR's vice president of licensing, nonchalantly asked France, "What do you think of this: Maybe we should have a championship season within a season?"
Like every other NASCAR fan in America, Dyer had watched Matt Kenseth run away with the 2003 points title in one of the sleepiest late seasons in Cup history, and he was trying to figure out a way to inject a shot of excitement into the final weeks of the season. A few days after his initial comment to his boss, Dyer sent France a detailed e-mail that outlined a potential playoff-style format. France then started floating the idea to other NASCAR executives, drivers and even some fans; alas, nearly everyone France spoke to said the concept sounded more idiotic than inspired.
Yet Brian France remained convinced that he needed to do something to shake NASCAR out of its end-of-the-season doldrums. After all, since 1999 the second-place driver had trailed the leader by an average of 233 points--nearly 100 points more than the largest surmountable gap--entering the season's final race. So France, whose grandfather Bill France Sr. founded NASCAR, green-lighted a radical scoring makeover. NASCAR dubbed it the Chase for the Nextel Cup. It would work like this: After the 26th race of the season NASCAR would adjust the point totals of the top 10 drivers and anyone else within 400 points of the leader so that the gap between each driver would be five points. Only the top 10 would be eligible to win the 10-race shootout.
This wasn't a popular decision. NASCAR's own polls conducted early in the 2004 season indicated that 90% of fans were against the change. But as summer gave way to autumn, fans, drivers and car owners began to embrace the Chase because it created something that had been lacking. An ESPN.com poll near the end of the season showed that 65% of NASCAR fans favored the new format.
"I wasn't really too hot about it in the beginning, but it's grown on me," says Elliott Sadler, who finished the Chase in ninth place. "It's like if there's a football game and the score is 49-3 in the fourth quarter, well, you aren't going to watch it. But if it's 10-10 in the fourth quarter, you're going to pay attention."
Indeed, the 10-race shootout proved to be as pulse-pounding as Brian France had hoped. The standings, especially over the Chase's final month, remained absurdly close. Kurt Busch seized the early momentum by winning the first Chase race, the Sylvania 300, in Loudon, N.H. But two weeks later Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag at Talladega to wrest the lead away--until, that is, Little E infamously uttered a profanity in a postrace interview, a slip of the tongue that prompted NASCAR to dock him 25 points, which dropped Earnhardt to second place in the standings.
All the while, Jimmie Johnson struggled. JJ had dominated most of NASCAR's regular season--at one point he had 13 top five finishes over 17 races and had built a 232-point lead in the standings--but he lost momentum heading into the Chase with three straight 36th-place-or-worse finishes in August (partly the result of experimentation by Johnson and his team with engines and setups in advance of the Chase). When the Chase began, Johnson finished out of the top 30 in back-to-back races at Talladega and Kansas. With six races left he trailed the leader, Busch, by 247 points. Even Johnson admitted he was out of the title hunt.
But then Johnson went on a historic tear, becoming the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 1998-99 to win four races in five starts. Heading into the season finale--the Ford 400 in Homestead, Fla.-- Johnson trailed Busch by a mere 18 points. In fact, the top five drivers were separated by only 82 points, the tightest five-way battle for the title with one race remaining in modern NASCAR history. Busch held the slimmest of leads over Johnson, Gordon (21), Earnhardt (72) and Mark Martin (82).
Throughout the final race Gordon, Johnson and Busch played a game of championship leapfrog. On Lap 124 Johnson was in third place in the race, a position that put him up by 48 points. By Lap 178 Gordon was in third place and atop the standings by 36 points. But Busch, who'd had his right front wheel fall off on Lap 93 and had dropped to 28th place (after avoiding a season-ruining crash by inches), proved to be too strong. Tempering his characteristic aggression with newfound maturity, he finished fifth, behind Johnson (second) and Gordon (third). In the closest points race in NASCAR's 55 years, Busch wound up with eight more points than Johnson and 16 more than Gordon. "The NFL has the Super Bowl, baseball has the World Series, and now NASCAR has this season-ending race in the Chase," Busch said a few hours after winning the championship. "I've never driven so hard in my life. Man, what a couple of weeks!"