Busch prevailed over Johnson and Jeff Gordon in the inaugural Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2004, and Stewart won the title a year later. Since then, of course, it’s been all Johnson for the last four seasons.
This year, both Busch and Stewart made the Chase, though neither is in title contention now — Stewart is ninth in points, one slot ahead of Busch. Both drivers are keenly aware of the pressure the three title contenders face this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin leads the points heading into Sunday’s season-ending Ford 400, with a narrow 15-point margin over Johnson and a 46-point gap on third-place Harvick.
While he’d rather be in title contention himself, Busch said he’s enjoying watching the battle this time around.
“Since the Chase has started, myself, Gordon, Johnson … we had Mark Martin come down to the wire,” said Busch. “We’ve had Tony Stewart, the ’05 champion, he’s felt the pressure before. A guy like Greg Biffle, he finished second overall one year and was right in the mix until the end.
“So now, we’ve added Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick to the list of individuals who have experienced what it takes to go all the way down to the end, have a shot at the championship — to have the restless nights, to have the endless thoughts of how to make the car better or how to drive it out on the race track to stay out of trouble,” said Busch. “It’s fun to see those guys go through that experience. Being one of them, it’s neat that I can see a little bit of it. You don’t get caught up in the games that go on; you just go out there and race your car.”
Stewart said that prior to the 2005 season finale at Homestead, he left North Carolina and flew back to Indiana to hang out with some pals of his and get a bit of a breather.
“I went home,” Stewart said. “My favorite thing to do is to go home and be around my friends and my property. I did that until I absolutely had to leave to go to Florida. The more relaxed you are going into this weekend, the better off you’ll be.”
According to Stewart, staying relaxed will be key for the big three this weekend. “It’s just one of those situations where what we learned from previous championships in IndyCar and USAC and all of these other things, you can mentally drain yourself before you even get to that point,” he said. “The way to combat that is to go out and do your favorite things and go have fun and enjoy the time that you have at home before you have to go.”
Busch said he’s looking forward to seeing how things shake out this weekend. “This has the makings of ’04, and ’04 had the makings of what it was in 1992,” Busch said, referring to Alan Kulwicki’s championship run of 1992. “It’s what everybody likes to see, a great points battle all the way to the end and it’s just not the final race, it’s the weeks leading up and how they’ve handled the pressure for the weeks leading up.”
Busch, who has made no secret of his dislike of the Hendrick Motorsports camp, is hoping someone other than Johnson gets it done on Sunday.
“If we do have a new champion, that means that somebody knocked Jimmie Johnson off,” Busch said. “That’s going to be big. That name will always be printed right after you have Johnson’s four times in a row.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.