As we think about the last 20-25 years in NASCAR, there are several special seasons that jump out at us. One of those, and maybe the most crucial one, was NASCAR 2004.
The reasons are plentiful. NASCAR 2004 featured the introduction of the Chase, the sport’s introduction to a playoff system. The first edition featured a close championship race between three now-or-future Hall of Famers. NASCAR 2004 also saw legends scoring their final career win, a new title sponsor for the first time in the sport’s modern era, a tragic airplane crash affecting one of the sport’s largest teams, and a rookie who burst onto the scene that not many saw coming.
Let’s start with the end of 2003. Matt Kenseth won the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup championship after having an outstanding season. These days, an outstanding year would include many wins and finishing inside the top five in the vast majority of races. Kenseth did have many top fives and top 10s; however, he only scored one victory.
Coasting to the championship over the final few races, Kenseth clinched before the season finale and sparked a debate in the sport that we never saw before: a change in the championship format. By comparison, Ryan Newman had eight wins that year yet did not finish inside the top five in points. It was clear the Latford point system, installed in 1975, supported consistency more than winning.
As a result, NASCAR CEO Brian France decided the title race needed a shakeup. His brainchild, the Chase for the Championship, dominated offseason talk heading into 2004. It would be a playoff-style format, 10 drivers competing over 10 races to decide the series title. The Cup Series would still compete with full fields but the top 10 in points would find their totals “reset” to compete for the championship after a 26-race regular season.
Not only did the playoffs first appear, but a new title sponsor would sign on for the first time in NASCAR’s modern era. Cell phone company Nextel would replace Winston, changing the new name of the premier series to the “NASCAR Nextel Cup Series” for the first time since 1972. Their entry, combined with the new format, truly marked the beginning of a new era for the sport.
As it does every season, the Daytona 500 kicked off NASCAR’s 2004 Cup Series schedule. While many know the importance of winning this race and what it means, the season-opening event felt different than others. President George W. Bush would be in attendance for the race, which in itself was a huge deal for the sport. NASCAR was peaking with popularity around this time, so this visit just added to the sport’s national importance.
Entering Daytona Speedweeks, the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. team seemed to have a distinct advantage on the sport’s superspeedways. DEI teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip entered the race as the favorites. Low and behold, Earnhardt took home his first Daytona 500 win by holding off Tony Stewart. The victory came just three years after the tragic death of his father Dale Earnhardt Sr., marking a major moment in the career of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver.
As the 2004 season progressed, it was clear Earnhardt, Stewart and defending champion Kenseth weren’t the only contenders vying for the series title. Young phenom Jimmie Johnson, four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and Roush Racing’s Kurt Busch led the charge. It truly seemed like a wide open year up front, especially now with the new playoff format.
The early season saw many contenders emerge. Kenseth won two of the first three races, Earnhardt Jr. took the Daytona 500 and the win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and then Gordon captured two races a row: Auto Club Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
One of the surprises, though that not many expected was rookie sensation Kasey Kahne.
Kahne took over the famed No. 9 Dodge for Ray Evernham formerly driven by Hall of Famer Bill Elliott. Kahne only had one full season in the NASCAR Busch Series the previous year and only won once, the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Even though Kahne started off with a 41st-place finish in the Daytona 500, he scored three second-place results in the first eight races of the season. By the time the Coca-Cola 600 rolled around in late May, Kahne was looked at being not only a favorite for Rookie of the Year, but a possible contender for the title. His only issue appeared to be continual bad luck, beginning with a loss by inches to Kenseth in an early-season race at Rockingham Speedway (that race also served as the Cup Series finale at the track).
By the halfway point in the season, we saw at total of 10 different winners, meaning the race to the Chase was going to intensify. Aging legends like Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin were among drivers who scored a victory. Wallace would score his final career win at Martinsville in April; however, his playoff bid would fall short, leading to a retirement announcement effective the end of the 2005 season.
Martin would continue his career for several years after 2004, scoring the win at Dover in June. Many knew he’d be a title contender, but we did not know at the time how much longer his career would last. (Martin also announced the 2005 season would be his last in the Cup Series. He later chose to continue for several more years).
In the first half of NASCAR 2004, Gordon gradually emerged as a top threat; he won four times in the first 18 events. But one name that emerged in the second half was Kurt Busch. The young driver would not have the most wins but would stay consistent as we neared the Chase. At the time, Roush was a powerhouse with Busch, Martin, Greg Biffle, Kenseth and the No. 99 split between a soon-to-be-departed Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards.
Burton’s decision to jump to Richard Childress Racing, the result of an unsponsored car, opened the door for a driver change. Edwards would make his debut for the team in Michigan that season in August, and he would fit right in with the others, finding instant success. In the prospect’s first career race at NASCAR’s top level, Edwards finished 10th. A top 10 in your very first Cup race at the time was a sign that you were going to be a superstar for years to come.
Keep in mind at the time that Edwards had just limited experience in the sport’s lower series. His full-time duty was driving the No. 99 for Roush in the the sport’s Truck Series; he would find victory lane several times there. In fact, such limited seat time caused Roush to keep Edwards full-time in the Busch Series later on in his career. The driver would win several more races and a championship while igniting another controversy later in the decade: Cup drivers dipping down and moonlighting in lower-level divisions.
Richmond Raceway was earmarked as the September regular season finale. The competitive short track would determine the 10 Nextel Cup Series drivers who would run for the championship. On the bubble entering the race were Martin, Kahne, Jamie McMurray and Jeremy Mayfield. The only way Mayfield, on the fringes of contention, could really make his way into the Chase field was to win the race and dominate.
But dominate he did. With the caliber of drivers competing, you would think that was next to impossible being that Mayfield had a quiet season up to that point. But Mayfield’s teammate, Kahne, struggled and was never in contention. (He finished 24th). McMurray was not strong enough, struggling to cling on to the top 10. Falling a heartbreaking 15 points short, it would be more than a decade before McMurray broke through with a playoff bid.
Up front, Mayfield led 151 of the 400 laps and worked his way into the playoff field of 10. That would leave NASCAR 2004 with Busch, Johnson, Gordon, Stewart, Newman, Martin, Elliott Sadler, Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth and Mayfield to run for the series championship.
Nobody knew what would happen as we made it into the final 10 races. But in the end, it was quite arguably the greatest 10 we have ever seen. Everyone, at first, felt like NASCAR hit a home run with this format. Each race had its own intensity level and you can tell these drivers had to give it 110% every single lap. Halfway through the 10-race playoff, Busch, Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. looked to be the favorites to win it all on the strength of early playoff performances.
However, they overlooked Johnson.
Johnson had a historic run near the end of the season that we may never see again. In order to get back into the hunt, he had to win almost every race or at least finish inside the top three. Unfortunately, in the midst of that need came an unexpected tragedy that rocked the sport.
On a cloudy day in October of 2004, a plane carrying several members from Hendrick Motorsports crashed near the track on its way to the event. Not aware of the situation beforehand, the race went on as is for everyone involved in the sport. Johnson wound up winning the race that day but there was no celebration after the fact. Nobody knew why. There was no social media, no online reporting… nothing. Everyone at the track was confused. The news was delivered shortly after the checkered flag that the tragic plane crash occurred; none of the 10 members on the plane survived. It was a scar HMS would carry with them for the rest of the season and, to this day, they still do.
Johnson would wind up scoring the win at Atlanta the following week, sparking one of the most emotional victory celebrations we will ever see in the history of the sport. All four of the team’s drivers would celebrate in victory lane that day, turning their hat backwards in honor of Ricky Hendrick, owner Rick’s son who perished in the terrible crash. Knowing they would be racing with heavy hearts every race, their push to earn the championship for their fallen colleagues had never been stronger.
Johnson’s Atlanta victory would become part of an incredible streak: four wins in five races. His streak left him one of five drivers with a shot at the title entering the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, joining Busch, Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. and Martin. NASCAR 2004 marked the first time since 1992 that five drivers had a mathematical chance to win it all.
Leading the pack was Busch, a surprise contender among the quintet despite a strong second half of the year. Busch had won the first race of the playoffs, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, as part of eight top-10 finishes in nine races entering the season finale. Consistency was the reason the Chase was created, to promote winning but it turned out old championship habits were hard to break.
One of the most iconic moments in NASCAR history took place early in the race when Busch had a tire issue and had to pit in position to win the title. Coming onto pit road, he lost his entire wheel and nearly clobbered the pit road wall. Narrowly avoiding it, the incident left open a chance of a comeback. Busch worked his way back into contention and, after a late-race restart, the title was between Johnson, Gordon and Busch. In the end, Busch would claim his first (and to date only) career championship in the Cup Series. It would be not only the first of his career, but first in the Nextel Cup era and the first in the Chase era.
When we look back on all that took place, 2004 was one of the best seasons our sport has offered. Personally, this season was the first I started watching NASCAR, and I was a huge Kasey Kahne fan growing up. I was a fan from his second ever race at eight years old and watching the success he had in his rookie season was something else. I fell in love with the sport my first year with the amount of amazing competition and the personalities we had; the excitement surrounding each race was perfect.
The Chase (the playoffs as we know it now) has carried on to this day. Nextel would remain the sponsor until 2007, which would be when Sprint bought them out; their partnership with NASCAR would last until 2016.
Looking back, so many factors from this season have defined the sport today. The playoffs have transformed the way every team approaches the sport; to look back at the year it all began is astonishing. Today, we take for granted four drivers have a chance at the title; back then, simply having the title decided in the season finale was a huge deal.
We may never see another season in stock car racing like NASCAR 2004. But if not? That’s fine with me. It is hard to match a year that good, a time when the sport was at its best.