Racing Beat

Jimmie Johnson waves the checkered flag as he celebrates winning the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

A Very Good Year
As is the case with most sports, the end of the season marks a time for fans and media to look back at the year and single out some of its top moments. NASCAR is no different, and Jimmie Johnson’s victory in Atlanta following a Hendricks Motorsports team tragedy was selected as the story of the year.

Not only did the victory keep Johnson in the hunt for the inaugural “Chase for the Championship,” it proved to be a healing moment following a plane crash that claimed the lives of several Hendricks Motorsports team members.

The crash had occurred just a week before the Oct. 31 event.

Other top stories were:

Kurt Busch winning the title. Busch battled back from a detached right front tire in the Nextel Cup Series season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch the 2004 crown on the final lap.

Little E winning the Daytona 500 was third; followed by Jeremy Mayfield’s Sept. 11 victory at Richmond, a win that qualified him for the Chase for the Championship; and Matt Kenseth’s photo finish with Rookie of the Year Kasey Kahne at Rockingham was voted the fifth biggest moment of the 2004 season.

Nextel Cup Makes Its Mark
After 36 years of R.J. Reynolds sponsorship of NASCAR’s premiere league, there was trepidation about the arrival of Nextel as title sponsor. In addition, NASCAR went to a “playoff” format for the first time with its Chase for the Championship.

Although there was plenty of controversy in a season of transition – especially with NASCAR officials seemingly changing rules from week to week – the year was another huge success for the premiere stock car circuit.

Kurt Busch’s title, for example, was a direct result of the new playoff. After race No. 26 on the schedule, the top 10 drivers saw their point totals readjusted, meaning the final 10 races of the year would determine the series champ.

Busch’s title was the second consecutive series title for owner Jack Roush and Roush Racing and the first for Busch’s crew chief, 18-year veteran Jimmy Fennig. Busch, a brash, hard-driving competitor, was greeted with plenty of boos at most every start, calling to mind the treatment Dale Earnhardt received in his earlier years. Aside from Earnhardt Jr.’s emotional victory in the season-opening Daytona 500, Nextel was also part of some stock car racing history.

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On Aug. 8, Jeff Gordon won his fourth Brickyard 400, significant in that only three other drivers have won four events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser. But none of them did so in the NASCAR series.

The Busch Series, although unaffected by Nextel’s sponsorship of NASCAR’s primary series, had a historic season as well.

Martin Truex Jr. came from nowhere to claim the crown – handpicked by Little E to drive the NBS car owned by himself and Teresa Earnhardt. Truex Jr. led the series in seven categories. Among them points (5,173), wins (six), poles (seven), races led (21), average finish (7.6), top fives (17) and top 10s (26).

Truex Jr.’s primary rival for the NASCAR Busch Series was the younger brother of the Nextel Cup champ – 19-year-old Rookie of the Year Kyle Busch, who finished a remarkable year, owning or sharing seven all-time rookie records.

This year the Busch Series is heading south of the border for the first time to compete at Mexico’s famed Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course.

In the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Bobby Hamilton was the champion. A longtime NASCAR stock car veteran, Hamilton began his third season in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2004 and ultimately emerged as its oldest champion.

He clinched the title at Homestead, becoming the first driver-owner to win a series title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

There were 13 different NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series winners in 2004 and five first-time winners.

3 Scores
Fans of stock car racing have slim pickin’s when it comes to movies about their favorite sport. The Last American Hero, a fictionalized account of the life of Junior Johnson, was solid, but that was about it. Stroker Ace and Days of Thunder were panned by critics, and most films with a stock car theme were either played for laughs or simply laughably bad.

Until now.

The made-for-ESPN movie 3, available on video and DVD, actually hits the mark. Anyone who knew or knew of Dale Earnhardt is likely to give the film a thumb’s up.

During the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt’s Chevrolet was serving as a buffer for Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who were running No.1 and 2 headed for the finish line. Both leaders drove vehicles owned by Earnhardt, and instead of trying to make a run for the checkered himself, Earnhardt opted to keep a pack of cars at bay while his friend and his son battled for the win.

Running three-wide and in third place on the fourth turn, Earnhardt was slightly ahead of Sterling Marlin’s Dodge when his vehicle began to lose its line on the track after being tapped. The Chevrolet then veered upward toward the 31-degree banking and smacked the wall at approximately 180 miles per hour. Ken Schrader’s car was collected by Earnhardt’s, and the two damaged vehicles spun to the grassy area at the bottom of the track.

It is believed Earnhardt died instantly from massive head injuries, but 3 wisely ended its on-track footage before Earnhardt’s car hit the wall.

And while I don’t claim to know all of Earnhardt’s backstory, the film seemed to be true to what we had always read and heard about the man who is probably the greatest NASCAR driver who ever lived.

Winning seven series championships and 76 races – sixth on the all-time list – was just part of his legend.

His 34 wins at various Daytona events was a record, and he was the winningest driver in Talladega Superspeedway history with 10 Winston Cup victories.

An avid hunter and fisherman, Earnhardt began racing Winston Cup full-time in 1979, winning Rookie of the Year honors. One season later, the Kannapolis, N.C., native would claim the first of his record-tying seven Winston Cup crowns, putting him even with Richard Petty for most series championships. Earnhardt won more money than any driver in motorsports history and was a multiple recipient of National Motorsports Press Association Driver of the Year honors.

A nice touch in 3 was emphasizing the friendship between Earnhardt and Neil Bonnett. The buddy scenes were some of the movie’s best, mixing in humor and pathos to give both drivers a human touch.

Neither the Earnhardt family nor Richard Childress Racing had a part in 3, and that’s already caused some ill feelings. Childress said ESPN should’ve consulted him before putting Earnhardt’s story on the screen.

Even Dale Jr. hints that the family would’ve liked a say-so in the filming, although he admits Earnhardt fans are bound to like it.

I understand how something as personal as a life story could be hard to watch for the family – especially without their blessing – but if anything, the movie glossed over some of the rougher edges of Earnhardt.

It was obvious actor Barry Pepper, who played Earnhardt and also produced 3, became a fan, and the film is made from the perspective of someone who greatly admired its subject.

And that’s why the movie works. Perhaps years from now a major studio will come along and try to delve deeper into the man as well as the myth, but for now we just want to see a glimpse of an athlete whose time was cut far too short.

3 is a movie certainly worth owning.