Busch drove the wheels off

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Kurt Busch drove the wheel off his car. And that set him up for a most appropriate championship finish.

Busch finished fifth in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and clinched the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup championship on Sunday, slowly wrapping his arms around the first-ever Nextel Cup and hoisting it from his perch atop his No. 97 Ford Taurus in Victory Lane.

The 26-year-old Las Vegas native beat out Jimmie Johnson by just eight points, the smallest margin in modern-era NASCAR history, and he did so despite falling as far back as 28th after the right-front tire came tumbling off his car.

"Just an unbelievable day," a winded Busch said afterward, the gravity of what he'd just accomplished clearly not completely absorbed. "To be able to persevere such as we did, to overcome all the different obstacles, to put together a great season such as we did. Unbelievable."

The title clincher followed the script that Busch and Co. had written throughout the first nine races of the 10-race shootout for the title, adding one more come-from-behind finish to a title run laden with obstacles overcome and surprising top-five endings.

"When they needed things to happen, whether it be a caution, whether he spun and didn't hit anything, it happened," said Jeff Gordon, who brought his No. 24 Chevy home third in his failed bid for a fifth title. "That's what makes up a championship year for you. You run into problems and they really aren't problems, or you don't have problems at all."

In Busch's case, there's no denying he had problems on Sunday. He had a 2,500-pound car riding on three tires and he was headed for a wall.

On lap 92, Busch felt vibrations and knew his tire was in trouble. He thought it was getting ready to blow, so he headed for pit road. When he got to about 10 yards away, the tire inexplicably popped off its wheel.

That's when Busch, facing a disaster that easily could have cost him this championship, caught the two biggest breaks of his title run.

The first break came in the form of his being able to hold onto the car, which immediately jerked to the right -- precisely where the retaining wall that lines the outside of pit road begins. Busch came a breath away from slamming up against it, if not hitting it head on, and causing major damage to his chassis.

The second break came in the timing and direction of the tire's escape. It popped off just before Busch got onto pit road and it headed off to the right, sending it directly onto the racetrack and forcing a yellow caution flag to come out and slow the field on account of the obstruction.

Thus, when Busch pitted, the field was slowly paraded around the 1.5-mile oval. His team was able to change the right-front wheel and get the car back on the track without losing a lap.

"Just the way our season has gone," Busch said with a shrug and a smile.

Busch's roll was slowed, but it wasn't halted. He was even able to pit once more before the caution was lifted, this time to pull the sheet metal around the right-front tire out so that it wouldn't rub against the wheel and cause it to pop.

He restarted in 28th place, the last car on the lead lap, and faced a task he'd just seen another fast car, the No. 48 Chevy of Jimmie Johnson, accomplish: Slice through the pack and emerge up front.

However, when Johnson went from a starting position of 39th to ninth in about 70 laps, he did so with a solid car. Busch's 97, meanwhile, was switching from tight to loose to just plain uncomfortable. Busch repeatedly made pit stops under caution for track bar and wedge adjustments.

That kept Busch out of the top 10 for much of the race, and it breathed life into the championship dreams of Johnson and Gordon, who ended up 16 points out in third.

But by the end of the race, with about 50 laps to go, crew chief Jimmy Fennig had the car dialed in just right and Busch was off to the races. He cracked the top 10 by lap 240 of a scheduled 267, and though both Johnson and Gordon were ahead of him, he was pretty safe in the title chase.

"You never can say how big some things are until afterward you look and those five points were tremendous for us," Busch said.

They absolutely made a heck of a difference. Although, those points alone would not have been enough to guarantee Busch the big trophy. Busch also needed to make sure he finished at least within three spots of Johnson and five spots of Gordon.

As fast as Busch was, he couldn't guarantee that distance from the 48 and 24 without help because both Johnson and Gordon were on a gallop as the race came to an end.

That's when an unlikely teammate came through at just the right time.

While fellow Roush drivers Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth each made the 10-race Chase, Greg Biffle did not. He did come to Miami with one victory this season, but he was otherwise unimpressive, hovering around 20th in the standings all year long.

This weekend, he showed a fast car -- and it was fastest when Busch needed it to be most. With laps waning, Biffle came up on the bumper of Busch. Even though every position Busch could gain made it harder for Johnson and Gordon to wrestle the title away, the order came over the radio for Busch to let Biffle by him without a fight.

That's because everyone knew Biffle was faster than Johnson and Gordon, and if Busch didn't hold him up, Biffle would certainly throw the two Hendrick drivers one spot lower, too.

That's exactly what he did. Biffle passed them both and then held off a powerful charge from Johnson and Gordon, who finished second and third in the race, respectively, to win. That distanced Busch three cars behind Johnson and two behind Gordon -- the perfect margin to claim the title.

"I tell you what, that's the toughest spot to be in ever in your life," Biffle said. "I wanted to win the race. I had the car to win the race. I felt like we were entitled to win the race, if that sounds arrogant or not. We had the fastest car and led a lot of the laps. But I was super conscious of what was going on around me. I knew when I went by Kurt that I was going to have enough laps to get by the 48 and the 24 as well."

It all went according to plan for Busch. And, in the end, he once more finished in the top five after a visit to the back of the pack early on. In fact, Busch was so used to surmounting race-day struggles that he was undaunted when the tire problem threatened to ruin his day.

He joked that the team might want to buy some new tires before next season, and pleaded with his team to put the problem behind them and focus on doing what they've done so well: Bounce back.

Earlier in the year, Busch spun out at Kansas Speedway only to charge back and finish sixth. The next week at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Busch spun again in the opening laps of the race. He came back to finish fourth. Again at Darlington Raceway he met trouble, falling to the back of the pack and fighting off a crowd and his own ailing car. But somehow he came back to finish sixth.

"I knew that we'd been there before and I knew that this team was capable of getting us back to the front," Busch said. "There was no sense in panicking."

Team owner Jack Roush hesitated only a second when asked how he thought Busch and Co. were able to race so resiliently throughout this chase, and particularly Sunday when every one of the contender's nerves were on edge.

"It's Jimmy Fennig," he said. "He's the best there is."

Nobody denies that Fennig has been the key to the 97's success. Before his arrival in 2002, Busch came out to a lackluster 27th-place finish in his rookie year. But with Fennig's help, and fatherly approach, Busch came to understand better what he was doing wrong and laid foundation for what was accomplished Sunday.

"He's built this team," Roush said. "And he's helped Kurt advance."

Fennig came up racing the short tracks in the Midwest. He earned a reputation for being good with a wrench, and he found himself united with a talented American Speed Association driver named Mark Martin. The two won one title together before Martin advanced to NASCAR's Busch Grand National Series and Fennig went off to work for Bobby Allison.

When Allison closed shop on his race team, Martin and Fennig were reunited in the Cup Series working for Roush. Together, they fell short on three close bids for a title, and everytime Martin deflected questions about his disappiontment, pointing out that there was a guy smarter than he missing out on the titles, too.

In 2002, Roush shook up the organization and sent Fennig to tutor young Busch. The kid realized right away that he was going to have to start changing his ways.

"When I raced with Jimmy Fennig my second year, he gave me great cars that would lead races and run up front," Busch said. "Now I'm an unpolished second-year driver that has equipment -- look out -- and I ran over people."

Busch credits Fennig for teaching him the poise and patience to let a car come into its own and slowly make its way to the front. He says that experience has as much to do as anything else with his maturization on the racetrack.

It was with that maturity that Busch proceeded to lighten the mood among the team when everyone -- as well as his tire -- was a bit down. And it was that maturity that was on display when Busch patiently bobbed from the middle to the back of the pack before putting forth one final charge to finish fifth.

"I think that's exactly what you saw today," Roush said. "He is a champion in every sense. That's what he proved today."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.