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Drivers take spotlight

New rules, championship format take backseat to individual success, failure
Friday, November 25, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:03 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The season started with Tony Stewart out front, only to fade at the end of the biggest race of the year. He recovered to close out the season on top, with a second championship and a spot among NASCAR’s elite.

In between, Stewart learned to love the spotlight just in time to see Kurt Busch unceremoniously kicked out of it.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon couldn’t avoid the constant scrutiny that comes with losing, while Busch and Jamie McMurray endured months of speculation about their futures.

Car owner Jack Roush proved his five-team model can work, only to have NASCAR tell him he’ll have to scale back.

For the first time in a handful of years, the NASCAR season was about the people who make the sport spin 36 weeks a year.

It began with Stewart, who dominated the Daytona 500 only to lose it at the end. But it was the first sign of what was to come for NASCAR’s former Bad Boy: When rival crew chief Chad Knaus baited him after the race, Stewart wouldn’t bite and walked away.

It set the tone for a peaceful season for Stewart. He had few blowups on or off the track, and it translated into a career year for him. He won five races, including one at his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and led the standings after nine of the 10 Chase for the championship races.

When it was over, he had earned his second title, joining Jeff Gordon as the only full-time active driver with multiple championships.

More important, he had earned some respect around the garage. Mark Martin called Stewart his “hero,” while Gordon noted that Stewart finally has adapted to the demands of Nextel Cup life.

“Any time a great driver like that (Martin) or great group of drivers speak highly of you like that, that’s probably the greatest honor in auto racing that you can have,” Stewart said. “For your peers to have that confidence in you and that respect for you. You know, to hear those comments from those two guys, that’s better than any trophy I’ve ever received in my life.”

At the same time Stewart was basking in the limelight, Busch was nowhere to be found.

Last year’s series champion was forbidden to participate in the celebration last Sunday after being suspended for the final two races of the season by Roush. On the surface, the team was punishing Busch for a run-in with Arizona police earlier this month.

But below all the layers, it was Roush’s way of severing ties with a talented but troublesome driver. Busch has had a rocky start to his NASCAR career, alienating almost everyone around him through his perceived arrogance and disrespect.

“He’s an extraordinary talent, but he’s really had trouble dealing with the realities of normal social behavior,” Roush said.

Busch is no longer his problem, though. In a driver swap that consumed the garage for months, Busch signed a deal in August to drive for Penske Racing in 2007.

But Busch wanted out sooner, and so did McMurray, who asked to leave Chip Ganassi Racing to drive for Roush a year before his contract expired. The ensuing five months were filled with legal wrangling that wasn’t solved until three weeks before the season ended.

When it was over, McMurray was headed to Roush and Busch was going to drive for Roger Penske, the one man who may be able to settle him down.

“I think Roger might be the first guy who can actually make Kurt listen to him,” said crew chief Jimmy Fennig, who spent three seasons as Busch’s top defender.

There were tons of defensive answers this season from Gordon and Earnhardt, the sport’s two most popular drivers. Both failed to make the Chase for the championship, threatening to take the star power out of the playoffs. The Chase went on without them, and both drivers swapped crew chiefs as soon as the final 10-race portion of the schedule began.

Gordon adapted well without Robbie Loomis and rallied to an 11th-place finish in the standings. Earnhardt still has some catching up to do, but should be back as a contender next season under Tony Eury Jr.

Meanwhile, after Roush put all five of his teams into the Chase, NASCAR fretted that multi-car owners were becoming too powerful. So it put a cap on the number of cars one person can own, ordering Roush to scale back to four some time in the future.

It will mean someone eventually has to go from the Roush stable, which groomed Columbia native Carl Edwards into one of the sport’s newest stars. A substitute teacher in Missouri a few years ago, Edwards marked his first full season with four wins and a third-place finish in the standings. He celebrated every achievement with his trademark backflip off the car window ledge.

“I’m going to say that Carl Edwards is the driver of the decade for not only Roush Racing but for all of Nextel Cup,” Roush said. “He’s a really great person and he’s the kind of young man that you’d love to have him be your son.”

Roush also will have Martin back for one more season after convincing the driver to hold off retirement another year. The same couldn’t be said for Rusty Wallace or Ricky Rudd, who drove off into the sunset last week. Wallace went out on top by challenging for the title, while Rudd left behind a legacy of 788 consecutive starts that probably never will be challenged.

Several crew chiefs challenged NASCAR this season, beginning with Todd Berrier, who was caught twice making illegal modifications to Kevin Harvick’s car. Berrier earned a total of six races in suspensions for his creativity.

Meanwhile, the crew chiefs at Hendrick Motorsports figured out how to skirt the rules at least twice this season. Rivals said the Hendrick teams were playing dirty, but NASCAR only tightened the loopholes the teams were exploiting.


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