Looking back, plenty to smile about in '05
The season 2005 is now in the rear-view mirror, and so commences the fans' two-month break before NASCAR begins anew. Soon, January will arrive, and with it Speedweeks -- a month of renewed hope and expectation for the 2006 season.
But before we move forward, let's take a look back at 10 things that made 2005 special.
Showing up to Speedweeks with a fast No. 24 Chevy, carrying that encouraging test into the practice sessions leading up to Daytona and nursing a general feeling of confidence, Gordon said he owed it to his team and his car to win the race. That's precisely what he did, quieting questions about how long it had been since the four-time Cup champ had won the Great American Race.
"This is a big event," he said afterward. "It's a tough one to win. I think I look more at how proud I am that I've won two more [since the first] than how long it's been since I won the last one. I know how hard we work. I know how hard, you know, the guys on this team, how much effort they put in every single year to try to win this thing. And sometimes you get the results and sometimes you don't.
"But when you've got a car like I had this week, you certainly want to take advantage of it. And I feel like that's what we did in '99. We had a car. I think we sat on the pole that year and won the race. We had an awesome car and we took advantage of it. I felt the same way for this car and this team this week."
The 2005 season began with a green-white-checkered finish in which Gordon outran defending Cup champ Kurt Busch to the finish by .158 seconds. It marked Gordon's 70th career victory in just his 402nd start; and he joined just four other racers who have won the race at least three times.
"I try not to put too much emphasis on [the accomplishments] right now because I don't want to focus on that, I want to focus on wins and this team and give them my best effort that I can week in and week out and do what we can to win the championship," Gordon said. "I know how fortunate I am to be a part of such an awesome team."
Afterward, the driver who had just 13 races to his credit before 2005, had to pinch himself to ensure he wasn't dreaming.
"To be honest with you, this is beyond my wildest dreams and I'm enjoying every minute of it," he said. "About two and a half years ago, I was working on my dirt car in my garage at home, and this is pretty cool. It's unbelievable."
By the time he'd finished second at the Advanced Auto Parts 500 at Martinsville Speedway in April, the questions were just plain annoying. When would he score his first victory? As if he hadn't been trying to get there all along.
But Martinsville was Kahne's last runner-up finish when he was victory-less. Four races later, he finally broke through at Richmond International Raceway. Kahne had to hold off one of his mentors, Tony Stewart, in a seven-lap shootout after a late-race restart. Stewart tried to apply the pressure, attempting intimidation, but Kahne was undaunted. He held on to beat Stewart by 1.674 seconds.
Kahne's six runner-up finishes before posting a victory had put him in accomplished company -- Marvin Panch, Mark Martin and Glen Wood had six second-place runs before breaking through (sixth all-time for most runner-up efforts before a win).
"We waited longer than I would have thought to win," Kahne said. "We started out last year good and had a lot of seconds and thirds and ran up front. We thought we could win races, but we weren't able to do it. We had to wait a long time, but at least we finally won one, and hopefully we'll get more now."
That hasn't happened yet. But save your questions. He'll get there soon; it's just something to look forward to next season.
Entering the 2005 running at the Brickyard, Stewart trotted out a new attitude. Yeah, he wanted to win at Indy. No, he couldn't predict when it would happen. No, he wouldn't lose his head if he lost once more.
Fortunately for the Columbus, Ind., native, he didn't have to test his promises.
Stewart led three times for a race-high 44 laps and held off a charging Kahne -- who returned the intimidation tactics attempted by Stewart at Richmond. Stewart crossed the line of bricks first, beating Kahne by 0.794 seconds, and the physical exhaustion and emotions overwhelmed him. His fans had come to expect a climbing of the fences after a Stewart victory, but Stewart needed a moment. He could hardly speak after achieving his childhood dream.
"I wish I could put it in words," he said. "I've wanted this my entire life. I feel like crap right now, but in five minutes, I'll feel really good."
Both racers were under the microscope that day in Richmond, Va. How would Junior react? Could Gordon step up to the plate?
Junior reacted by contemplating victory before the race began. His car never cooperated.
"I raced my butt off, passed a lot of people and got passed a lot," he said. "But we just never made it to the front."
Neither did Gordon. He wrecked during the contest, and his hopes for a 12th straight top-10 finish in 13 Cup seasons were dashed. He and Junior, the two most popular drivers on the circuit, would sit this title fight out.
"It's disappointing, but it's been a disappointing year," Gordon said afterward. "There are so many moments throughout the year where you can look back and say, 'Boy, if this could've happened, we could have been in the Chase.' But lately things have not gone our way and we haven't performed. It's disappointing, but it's been a disappointing year -- and not just tonight but a lot of nights and days."
This obviously was not a special moment for the drivers who missed the cut, but what was great was seeing the infusion of fresh talent. Greg Biffle and Edwards made their first Chases -- and the duo finished tied for second (technically second and third, respectively, because Biffle had more victories) in the standings.
Jack Roush and his gang of five raced so well this past season that they single-handedly brought about a rules change limiting stables to four teams for the future. Of course, Roush's five-car stable is grandfathered in as an exception for next year.
"It's a people business, and I've just been fortunate to work with a lot of great and talented people," Roush said. "To surround myself with the best in the business."
Technically, Roush's last statement would prove incorrect. After Roush's two years on top of the Cup world -- with 2003 champ Matt Kenseth and 2004 champ Busch on his team -- his reign came to an end with Stewart's championship. Roush would have to settle for his five cars finishing second, third, fourth, seventh and 10th.
That's why, despite the record becoming clear later that Busch was not drunk when he was pulled over by an Arizona cop with two races left in the season, Roush felt little remorse for suspending the defending champion and sidelining him for the remainder of the year.
Busch found out the morning of the race -- the morning before his little brother Kyle would score his second career victory. In Victory Lane, Kyle Busch stood up for his brother.
"I just want to say that I'm behind my brother 100 percent. I can't even think right now. I just want to apologize to all of the sponsors for taking a true champion out of the race today."
Gone are the days of Jeff Green, Christian Fittipaldi, John Andretti and Bobby Hamilton. All fine drivers, some with championship surnames. But none was a champion himself. None could replace Richard Petty in the No. 43 car.
Bobby Labonte, with his 2000 Cup title and, despite recent struggles, much-touted talent, might be the man to bring Petty back to prominence. And he won't be turning the tides alone. Championship crew chief and former Petty shop sweeper Loomis has returned to lift the program.
The announcement came Nov. 11, and -- though the change doesn't occur until next season -- just knowing it would happen made 2005 a little more special.
"Winning in our sport is a learned process," Loomis said. "The heritage of Petty Enterprises, coupled with a talented, successful driver like Bobby Labonte, will lead to some great things. There's a lot of work to be done, but we have some tremendous tools here and we're excited about the future."
So much had been made about Stewart's first title. That year, he won the championship while still under probation for an altercation with a photographer -- a reaction to his frustration at losing the 2002 Brickyard 400.
"I've put my team through hell," he said going into the 2005 finale, hoping and praying he would be able to win another title so his team could enjoy it sans controversy.
There wasn't much great about the way he did it. Stewart never contended for the win. He never showed much of the skill many laud as the best in NASCAR. He just took a leisurely Sunday evening drive, didn't screw up and won the title. But the way he clinched the title was fitting for the way he conducted himself throughout the year: He didn't screw up.
"They've never given up on me," an emotional Stewart said after he hoisted the trophy. "We sat down at the end of the year last year and had a big team meeting just to see if I was even going to stay with the team and whether they wanted me back or not. And we just had a heart-to-heart. Sometimes that's what teams have to do to get on track. It was nice to finally do one [championship] right."
Rusty Wallace won 55 races and scored 36 poles in 22 full seasons of racing. He won the 1989 Cup championship.
Ricky Rudd won 23 races and scored 29 poles in 29 years of racing. For some of that time, he became a throwback -- a racer/owner. Rudd won at least once in each of his first five years racing for himself. One of those years, 1997, he managed to win the Brickyard 400. And though he never won a title, he finished second in 1991 and finished in the top five four other times, as well.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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