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Waid’s World: On the NASCAR Playoffs & the 1st Driver to Win One

It was in 2004 that NASCAR conducted its first season under a “playoff” system, having abandoned its long-lasting points system that was the foundation of a championship based on season-long consistency of performance. When the “Chase for the Championship” was announced, rest assured it was not universally accepted among NASCAR’s competitors, fans and media. Many thought it was merely a gimmick that denigrated the true meaning of a championship — one that was achieved over the course of an entire season.

Among other reasons, NASCAR said that it hoped the Chase would increase fan interest, meaning an increase in television ratings, to the point where stock car racing would rival the NFL during the fall season.

Well, we all know how that has turned out, don’t we?

Over the years the Chase has been modified several times to the point where today’s playoff has resulted in four drivers — a “Final Four,” if you will — as the contenders for the title in this weekend’s season finale at Phoenix.

Despite the modifications, the playoff still has its critics. It always will.

I admit I wasn’t one of them. Well, I might have been on the fence. My contention was that under the previous point system, there weren’t many years during which the championship was decided at the last race.

Often, the champ was crowned one or even two races before the conclusion. Not much drama in that.

I admit there were indeed some dramatic points-based championship battles that lasted until the final lap of the final race. You are quite familiar, I trust, with the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta.

But I came to accept the fact that, if nothing else, at the very least the playoff system results in the championship being determined at the last race and contested among four drivers.

Feel free to disagree, of course.

NASCAR began what has evolved into its current playoff system in 2004. Called the “Chase for the Nextel Cup,” the championship was to be determined at the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 21.

Kurt Busch was in his fourth full season with team owner Jack Roush. He came into the Ford 400 with three victories, nine top five finishes and 20 among the top 10. Things started well for Busch at Homestead-Miami. He won the pole position over Roush teammate Greg Biffle.

But the race was almost a disaster.

On lap 93, Busch entered the access road between turns 3 and 4 en route to pit road. As he moved toward pit road, his right front tire came off. Busch jostled his car to the left, nearly hitting the yellow barrels at the road entrance. Had he done so, the championship would have been lost. Despite the fact his right wheel rolled down the entire pit road, Busch recovered and finished fifth, good enough to claim the title.

From that notable achievement (Busch was the first driver to win a championship under a playoff format), the driver from Las Vegas has gone on to experience a career littered with controversy and incidents.

His 2005 season ended two races short after a confrontation during the fall Phoenix race weekend with Maricopa County Sheriff deputies on Nov. 11 when he was pulled over for suspicion of drunken driving and cited for reckless driving.

Roush responded two days later by suspending Busch for the remainder of the season. Team President Geoff Smith famously declared they were “officially retiring as Kurt Busch’s apologists.”

Several other episodes, many of which involved Busch’s temper and lack of anger management, followed for several years afterward. It seemed Busch was constantly involved in disputes with other drivers — even his own brother Kyle — and NASCAR.

On Feb. 20, 2015, Busch became the first driver suspended for allegations of domestic violence under NASCAR’s personal conduct policy due to his being investigated on allegations that he had assaulted his ex-girlfriend during the Dover race weekend in September 2014.

Busch was suspended, and even though charges were never issued, NASCAR head Brian France announced that he would remain suspended until he completed NASCAR’s reinstatement program.

 On March 11, 2015, the indefinite suspension was lifted after Busch completed all requirements of the program. He went on to make the Chase and win two races that season.

At one time, a major magazine ranked Busch as one of the three most disliked pro athletes.

But do not think for a moment all of this is a condemnation. Fact is, I believe Busch has long since shed his unfavorable imagine and has grown into a more mature competitor and man.

We haven’t seen the “old” Busch in years.

And it’s likely we won’t see a lot of him in the future. He suffered a crash in qualifying at Pocono earlier this year and has been sidelined during recovery from symptoms of a concussion. He missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and has announced he will step away from full time competition in 2003. He may return on a limited basis.

But then, there’s this: Busch continues to donate tickets to NASCAR races for active military service members and veterans.

He also won the National Motorsports Press Association fourth quarter Pocono Spirit award for the “Window of Hope” pink window net program that shows support for breast cancer survivors and those continuing to battle breast cancer. After the Bank of America ROVAL 400, each driver with a pink window net signed it, and it was auctioned through The NASCAR Foundation with proceeds benefiting Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute’s Project PINK.

All this, and more, has made Busch a finalist for the National Press Association’s overall  2022 Pocono Spirit Award.

This is a Kurt Busch we wouldn’t have seen a few years ago. He’s certainly different than the one who was the first “playoff” champion.

He’s the one who is headed for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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