When NEXTEL signed on as the primary sponsor of NASCAR's top division of racing, many were skeptical. 2004 proved to be a breakout year not only for NEXTEL, but also for several of NASCAR's elite drivers. Here, we take a look at the top ten drivers of 2004, who not only excelled on the track, but off the track as well.
10. Jamie McMurray
2003 Rookie of the Year Jamie McMurray narrowly missed making the ten-race playoff in 2004, but he proved that being out of the chase didn't mean being out of contention for winning. The Ganassi Racing driver garnered an impressive 23 top-ten finishes, only Jeff Gordon had more. During the last ten races, McMurray finished in the top-ten eight times, second only to Kurt Busch. Had the point's race not been configured at the end of the year, McMurray would have easily been slated in seventh, his best finish in the standings. Instead, he found himself with an 11th place finishing position and an extra one million dollars at the end of the year. McMurray's fun-loving attitude and messy blonde hair made him a favorite in the garage area as well as a favorite with fans in 2004.
9. Kasey Kahne
2004 Rookie of the Year Kasey Kahne surprised the racing world by being one of the most competitive rookies in recent years. Kahne notched four poles, 13 top-five finishes and 14 top-ten finishes, but would be eluded that illustrious first victory. The 24-year old was picked early on to match Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart in rookie wins (with three). After finishing second behind Matt Kenseth by 1/100th of a second in an exhilarating finish at Rockingham in February, Kahne would go on to finish second four more times throughout the season. At Dover in June, Kahne was a runaway winner when he spun in somebody else's oil with less than 20 laps to go. At Charlotte in October he led the most laps before a flat tire ended his night and his hopes for victory. During the last ten races of the season, Kahne finished in the top-five four times. The blue-eyed young gun will look to bounce back and visit victory circle for the first time in 2005.
8. Elliott Sadler
The Candy Man can and did in 2004. Elliott Sadler, perhaps one of the biggest underdogs of 2004, proved with a little time and patience that anything is possible. Sadler started off the year by winning a 125-mile qualifying race at Daytona. He would visit victory lane two more times, once at Texas in April and once at Fontana in September. Sadler collected eight top-five and 14 top-ten finishes on his way to a ninth-place finish in the standings. Up to this year, Sadler's record was not exactly stellar, as he never finished better than 20th in the standings, and only had one victory, which came at Bristol in 2003. But lady luck was on his side, as he was one of only four drivers to remain in the top ten in standings all year. During the chase, Sadler found himself in the top ten only three times, but his record setting year will be remembered for some time.
7. Ryan Newman
Whether you prefer to call Ryan Newman Mr. Friday, The Polemaster, or just Ryan, the 2002 Rookie of the Year once again dominated Friday afternoons, taking nine poles in 2004. With 11 top-five and 14 top-ten finishes, Newman glided into the chase for the championship. He won twice this past season at Michigan in June and once during the chase at Dover. While the victory in Dover left him feeling good, the rest of the ride was a little bumpy for the Penske Racing sensation. He found himself out of the top ten more times than he was in the top ten during the chase, finishing 30th or worse four times. Newman finished seventh in standings, his worst finish since being in NASCAR's top division.Newman will look to continue his pole-dominance next year while hoping to repeat at Michigan and Dover.
6. Tony Stewart
Any year for Tony Stewart is a good year, and 2004 was no different. The 2002 Cup champion notched 10 top-five and 19 top-ten finishes on his way to a sixth place finishing position in the standings. His wins at Chicagoland and Watkins Glen came midseason when Stewart went on a tear of top ten finishes, finishing outside the top ten only twice in July through August. His chase for the championship started off on the wrong foot at New Hampshire in September when he was caught up in a wreck that left him with a huge points deficit to overcome. In the final ten races, Stewart found himself in the top ten six times, but only got to the top five once. Tony's on-track accomplishments were matched by his off-track generosity. After being selected as NASCAR's USG Person of the Year, an honor that carries a $100,000 reward, Stewart donated the entire amount to the Victory Junction Gang Camp. As usual, Stewart will return to NASCAR next year with his eye on winning a second Cup championship.
5. Mark Martin
2004 was a turn-around year for veteran Mark Martin. Martin was hoping to garner his first Cup championship, something that has eluded him since be began his voyage in NASCAR. Martin had one victory that came at Dover in June to go along with his 10 top-five and 15 top-ten finishes. Martin found himself 15th in standings in August, and without a push, he would be faced with looking in from the outside of the chase. A string of top five finishes plunged him to eighth in standings, good enough to make the chase. Martin remained competitive throughout the chase, finishing no worse than 20th in the final ten races. Late in the season, Martin announced that 2005 would be his final full year of Cup racing. Martin finished fourth in the point standings, improving over last season's career worst 17th place finishing position. Hoping to win that first championship, Martin will return in full force in 2005 and give it one last shot, making him a definite sentimental favorite.
4. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. knows how to win, as he found himself in victory lane six times in 2004. The pinnacle of his season came early when he won his first Daytona 500 in February. Junior collected 16 top-five and 21-top ten finishes in 2004, with six of those top tens in the final ten races. He was a threat nearly ever weekend, and added to his impressive restrictor plate resume with his victory at Daytona and Talladega late in the season. He swept both the Busch and Cup races at Daytona in February and Bristol in August. He led 19 out of the 36 races this season, and has now been seated in the top ten for 69 consecutive weeks. His super season was marred by a horrific crash at Infineon Raceway in June, when the sports car he was driving crashed and erupted into flames. Second-degree burns forced him out of his Budweiser Chevrolet at New Hampshire and Pocono midseason. Junior was docked 25 points on two separate occasions in 2004, once for admitting he spun himself out on purpose at Bristol in March, and the other for swearing on national TV after his victory at Talladega.
3. Jeff Gordon
The Drive-for-Five was most certainly alive in 2004 for Jeff Gordon. Gordon had a season that most racers only dream of: five wins, six poles, 16 top-five and 25 top-five finishes, the most by any driver in 2004. He led 25 races, led the most laps in a race seven times, and averaged an 11th place finishing position. Gordon won two restrictor plate races, one at Talladega in April and the other at Daytona in July. He also won his fourth Brickyard 400 in August, which would turn out to be his last victory of the season. During the chase, he finished in the top ten seven times, five of those times he was in the top five. Gordon finished the points race in third, watching the first NEXTEL Cup slip from his grasp. But a season marked by series-leading numbers was overshadowed by tragedy. On Oct. 24, a plane carrying several members of Hendrick Motorsports went down in southern Virginia, killing all 10 passengers on board. Team owner Rick Hendrick lost his son, Ricky, his brother, John, his two nieces, Kimberly and Jennifer, engine builder Randy Dorton, and general manager Jeff Turner. Also aboard the plane were DuPont executive Joe Jackson; Scott Lathram, a pilot for Tony Stewart; and Hendrick pilots Richard Tracy and Elizabeth Morrison.
2. Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch did in 2004 what no other driver could manage to do - he won the inaugural NEXTEL Cup championship. He notched one pole, three wins, ten top-five and 21 top-ten finishes on his way to his first Cup championship. Kurt went into the chase 7th in points, but prevailed after New Hampshire in second after collecting his third and final win of the year. Busch remained amazingly consistent in the final ten races of the season. After winning at New Hampshire and leading the most laps, he posted two fifth place finishes at Dover and Talladega, a sixth place at Kansas, a fourth place at Lowe's, a fifth at Martinsville (and the most laps led), a disappointing 42nd at Atlanta, then a 10th place at Phoenix, sixth at Darlington, and a fifth place at Homestead. Finishing in the top 10 nine times was a sure-fire way to win for Busch. The adversity Busch faced on the track sometimes matched the adversity he faced off the track, as fans voiced their displeasure with Busch several times in 2004. He has never been a popular driver among fans, but facts do not lie, and he was the top dog in 2004.
1. Jimmie Johnson
No, Jimmie Johnson was technically not number one in 2004. He lost the championship by a mere eight points to Busch. But for a guy who sat ninth in points after Kansas with six races remaining, Jimmie Johnson made one of the most miraculous comebacks of the season. He won four of the final ten races, jumping from ninth to second in a mere three weeks time. Johnson notched eight victories, more than any other driver. He also had one pole, 20 top-five finishes, the most by any driver, and had 23 top-ten finishes, tying Jamie McMurray for second. Like Gordon, Johnson's awesome season was scarred by tragedy. On the day of the plane crash, Johnson won at Martinsville, but was excused from victory lane. The next week in Atlanta, Johnson beat Mark Martin, who led the most laps that day, to bring home a victory for Hendrick Motorsports. It was an emotional sight for all who were witness to it. Johnson may not have won the championship, but he was the most dominant driver in 2004. He will return in 2005, driven by emotion and the desire to win that first NEXTEL Cup championship.