Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: What If Kurt Busch Hit the Barrels?

You know what happened.

You saw what happened, and it’s forever written in the history books. But did you ever wonder what could have happened? How one seemingly small event influences so much more than a moment?

In movies, time travelers are always warned not to interfere with anything that happened in the past because it could change the future as the world knows it. In real life, events leave us to speculate … what if?

What if …

What if just one moment from one race went down differently? What would change? How did a single moment — a crash, a penalty, a decision — affect what came after? 

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We’ll never really know, of course. In a single moment, there are infinite possibilities. A second, an inch, a single breath are all it might take to change everything.

But, well, what if just one thing didn’t happen? The answers are nothing more than speculation, of course, and we can’t pretend otherwise. But what might have changed?

A couple of weeks ago, at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kyle Larson tried to avoid running into Ryan Blaney on pit road and crashed hard into the tire barrier at the end of pit road instead. Larson was already locked into the next round, and nobody else was collected … but it was a reminder of the one that didn’t happen.

In 2004, Homestead-Miami Speedway hosted the season finale, the race that would decide the champion under the brand-new Chase format: the top 10 drivers after 26 races would race for a title, accumulating points over the final 10 races toward that end. It didn’t feature today’s eliminations or a single race to decide the title, but it did shake things up.

Entering the 2004 Ford 400, Kurt Busch held a slim 18-point lead over another young driver, Jimmie Johnson. Under the Latford point system used at the time, 18 points isn’t nearly as comfortable a margin as it is under the current system. And behind Johnson, lurking, was four-time champion Jeff Gordon, 21 points behind Busch. Nothing was decided, which was what NASCAR had gambled on when they added the Chase.

On lap 91, Busch had an issue that led to an unscheduled pit stop for a wheel issue. As he entered pit road, the right front wheel hub broke and the wheel came off his No. 97 Roush Racing (now RFK Racing) Ford. As Busch fought for control, those barrels loomed. Busch came perilously close to ending his race in those barrels even as the caution flew for the loose wheel. But he didn’t hit them. The caution kept him on the lead lap. And Busch’s fifth-place finish was enough to beat Johnson for the title by eight points.

What if Busch hadn’t missed the barrels?

The answer seems obvious, and simple: Johnson would have won the 2004 title.

But there’s more to it than meets the eye.

We’ll go with Busch himself walking away from the incident unscathed as Larson would 19 years later, because the sport is dangerous enough that we don’t need to go there; as it is, Busch’s career was cut short by injury later on.

The simple part first: assuming nothing else in the race goes differently and that no other races and titles are impacted by what might have happened after, if Busch’s day had ended after 91 laps, he’d have finished 41st, just ahead of Greg Sacks, whose car overheated and gave up after just three laps, and behind Shane Hmiel, who crashed after 155 laps. (That’s better than the 13 entries that didn’t even qualify for the race, by the way.)

41st place was worth 40 points, and because Busch led four laps before lap 91, add the five bonus points he grabbed for leading for a total of 45 on the day. Busch actually earned 160 points, so the net loss would be 115 points.

Instead of the 6,506 points Busch finished the season with, his total drops to 6,391. That would have placed Busch third in points for the season, still a career-high.

Ironically, the point margin at the end would still have been eight points, with Johnson, who finished second, edging Gordon, who finished third.

It would have been Johnson’s first title, but it would have been the first of eight, not seven.

Seven has been the magic number in NASCAR since Richard Petty won his seventh championship in 1979. No driver had won as many titles, and none would until Dale Earnhardt matched Petty in 1994. That shared record made Petty and Earnhardt two of the first three drivers inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame when it opened in 2010.

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Johnson tied Petty and Earnhardt in 2016 and enters the Hall in January as an equal. 

An eighth title would have changed NASCAR history the way we know it.

And it would not have been received well. As it is, some people will always question Johnson’s titles because they were all won under the Chase/playoff format. An eighth would have made him hated for having something The King and The Intimidator didn’t, not revered nor respected. Seven, people grumble about but generally live with. Eight? That’s a different story. 

So, if a crash on lap 91 at Homestead in 2004 changed only the title winner and nothing else, that still changes NASCAR Cup Series history as we know it drastically.

But what if it had changed something else?

Busch, as talented as he was, was notoriously volatile early in his career. He was as likely to snap at his own crew as he was reporters, and he had a tendency to use his car as a weapon, sometimes on pit road. He grew out of it eventually, earning the respect of the fans as he learned to respect the sport, but in 2004, Busch was a champion at age 26 with a chip on his shoulder.

Roush Racing was one of the top teams in NASCAR. The team won the 2003 title with Matt Kenseth and had three drivers in the top eight in points in 2004, including champion Busch. In 2005, all five of Roush’s full-time drivers finished in the top 10, an impressive feat for a team. That included Busch, who missed the last two races of 2005, his last season with Roush.

So about those two missed races. 

Busch announced he was leaving Roush Racing after the 2005 season to replace Rusty Wallace at Team Penske. But he was slated to run out the season until an incident in Phoenix where Busch was pulled over on his way back from dinner a couple of days before the race, and his volatility got the best of him. His comments to the officer included “Do you know who I am?” which went over, predictably, like a lead doughnut. 

Roush responded by letting Busch go that weekend. 

Busch spent six years with Penske, winning 10 races, but his temper continued to get him in trouble, and an altercation with a reporter and track workers in late 2011 spelled the end. 

Busch took rides with underfunded teams for a few years, running for Phoenix Racing in 2012, his first winless season since his rookie year. After that, it was Furniture Row Racing, a couple of years before the team teamed up with Joe Gibbs Racing and won a title.

But back to Homestead 2004 and the barrels.

What if Busch had hit those barrels and it had changed more than the title picture that year? What if coming so close to a title only to lose it had humbled Busch, mellowed him out a bit a few years sooner?

Had that happened, it could have meant more stability for Busch instead of burned bridges. That may have meant more wins, more shots at the title that he’d have lost after that fateful meeting with the barrels. It might have meant more sponsors willing to back him. He might have been the driver he became toward the end of his career closer to the beginning. 

His points finishes don’t really suggest that a few more wins here and there would have won Busch a title, but wins are wins, and they’re wins another driver would not have had. That may have influenced other drivers’ titles.

Alternately, would missing out on the title have meant the offer from Penske never came? How might that have changed things? If Busch had stayed with Roush, maybe the downturn for that team never comes. Or maybe Busch winds up with even less stability, bouncing from team to team.

What if Busch had hit those barrels at Homestead in 2004? Would that one slip have made Busch more beloved and Johnson more hated? Would it have actually ended up helping Busch’s career despite costing that championship? Would he have had a long-term home at Roush or wound up somewhere else entirely?

We can only speculate, of course, but what if one small event happened differently? Could that change the sport for years? Decades? Forever?

What if it had?

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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janice

it will be interesting next season with some hotheads coming to cup. carson hocevar, noah gragson, john hunter, and ty gibbs’s sophmore season. i wonder how long joe gibbs will be able to keep ty in line

the of course there will still be joey logano and denny hamlin. wonder if hamlin will be the unelected mouth of na$car with his opinions on everything

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