-- NASCAR's 2004 season comes to a close in Sunday's Ford 400 with five drivers in contention for the $5.28 million Nextel Cup championship and a storyline for stock-car racing fans of every loyalty.
The five-way battle for the spoils features Fords and Chevys; an on-track villain (Kurt Busch), a rising star (Jimmie Johnson), a four-time champion (Jeff Gordon), a fan favorite (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and an esteemed veteran (Mark Martin); and a dizzying number of mathematical permutations in which any one of them could clinch the title.
It all unfolds amid the sun-drenched setting of Homestead-Miami Speedway, whose high banked turns and wide straightaways are ideally suited for what NASCAR delivers best: Side-by-side racing with plenty of lead changes and paint-swapping.
NBC executives, hopeful of record ratings for a NASCAR season finale, are gearing up as never before, preparing an hour-long lead-in to Sunday's broadcast and blanketing the 1.5-mile superspeedway with a slew of extra cameras -- including a "Kurt-Cam," "Jimmie-Cam" and "Jeff-Cam" to chronicle every left turn and lugnut-change made by the top three title contenders.
"This is basically a Super Bowl with five teams on the same field at the same time," NBC's pit road reporter Bill Weber gushed. "And any one of them can win it."
NASCAR's knotted-up title chase, the closest in the sport's 55-year history, is no accident but rather the anticipated outcome of a new points system that bunched up the standings among the front runners with 10 races remaining. Not only did the so-called "Chase for the Championship" produce five drivers with a shot at the title entering the final race, but it also spiced up the racing down the stretch. And it promises to do the same Sunday, with drivers' on-track manners, typically referred to as "give and take" behind the wheel, falling by the wayside in the scramble.
Says Earnhardt Jr., a long shot for the championship sitting fourth in the standings, "I don't think the 'take' will be any more, but the 'give' will be a lot less on Sunday."
Busch, 26, has led the standings for the last six weeks and will start Sunday's race from the pole. But with his lead steadily dwindling (it's now just 18 points over Johnson), Busch can't afford to lay back. He could clinch the championship by winning the race; he could also win by finishing second if he earns five bonus points for leading at least one lap.
Either scenario would deliver a second consecutive championship for car owner Jack Roush, but it wouldn't sit well with a majority of fans. The fourth-year driver has been roundly derided after threatening to file charges against Jimmy Spencer, whom fans cheered when he punched Busch in the nose during an on-track scuffle at Michigan last year. Radio transmissions later revealed Busch had plotted to ram Spencer during the race, and some rival drivers, who view Busch as whiny and arrogant, even offered to pay Spencer's fine.
Sentiment will be on the side of Johnson and third-place challenger Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports teammates who lost 10 friends and co-workers in an Oct. 24 plane crash en route to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Team owner Rick Hendrick, whose only son, brother and two nieces perished in the crash, returned to racing Saturday for the first time since the tragedy and plans to be on the radio with his drivers during Sunday's race.
In emotional remarks to reporters Saturday, Hendrick thanked the NASCAR community, as well as Patrick County rescue crews and federal crash investigators, for their support, help and hard work. And he vowed that both he and his race teams would pay tribute to those lost by persevering.
"To honor all of those people on that plane, I'm more committed to this sport than I've ever been," said Hendrick, 55. "Together we're going to continue to try to be a strong competitor and a good citizen of this sport. We love the sport and love the people. The folks on that plane will never be forgotten. But we have to go on."
Johnson's team has stormed back from the tragedy, winning two of the three races since and four of the last five.
"Our teams are as motivated as possible," Johnson says. "I think we're racing with heavy hearts and looking forward to the possibility of having a chance to dedicate this championship to the friends we lost on that airplane."
Johnson could win the championship if he wins Sunday's race and collects five bonus points for leading the most laps -- assuming Busch finishes second and fails to lead a lap or finishes fourth or lower.
Gordon's task, facing a 21-point deficit, is slightly more difficult. He could clinch his fifth championship by winning on Sunday and collecting the maximum 10 bonus points; in addition, Busch would have to finish third or lower and not lead a lap.
"If I had my choice, I'd want to be in Kurt's position," Gordon concedes. "But I like the fact that we have to go for broke. [Busch] isn't so far ahead to where he can just relax. But if he runs a solid race and keeps us in sight, there's not much we can do."