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Fennig Recalls Luck Factor Of ’04 Title Chase

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, November 20 2010

Kurt Busch celebrated his 2004 championship at Homestead with a backward victory lap and luck riding shotgun. (File photos courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Six years after the first Chase for the Sprint Cup concluded at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, three drivers are in close contention for the title once again. The role of luck may well decide which one wins.

That was the case when Kurt Busch emerged from a nail-biter versus Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to win the 2004 Sprint Cup in a race that saw the theoretical points lead move back and forth between all three during the course of the event. It wasn’t so much the role of luck or the roll of the dice that helped Busch win as much as the roll of a broken wheel once it disengaged from his Roush Racing Ford before the halfway mark of the season finale.

“We were very fortunate that the wheel went the way it did on the outside of the pit wall,” said Jimmy Fennig, the crew chief for Busch’s No. 97 entry. “If it went down the inside of the pit wall, I think there wouldn’t have been much we could have done about it.”

Worried about a bad vibration on the right front corner of his Ford, Busch elected to pit under green on lap 91 of the 271-lap race. As he approached the pit road on the apron, the broken right front wheel disengaged. The wheel veered to the right of the pit wall and down the front straight while Busch struggled to three-wheel his Ford away from the barriers at the top end of the pit wall, veering to the left en route to his stall at the far end of the pit road.

The fact the wheel went down the front straight brought out a caution, because the gamboling

Jimmy Fennig and Kurt Busch made history in 2004.

Goodyear out on the track posed a serious hazard to the rest of the field. Otherwise, it might have just been collected at the far end of the pit road.

Had the wheel disengaged while Busch was at full speed, a crash may well have been the result. Had it come off after his Ford had entered the pit road, no caution would have been necessary.

“We were doing OK in the first part of the race and we were in the right position,” said Fennig, whose driver led Johnson by 18 points and Gordon by 21 points coming into the race. “Everybody was doing their job and all of sudden Kurt had a bad vibration, we lost the wheel and had to pit.”

Fortunately, the caution slowed the field just enough for Busch to beat the pace car as he pulled back onto the track. When the leaders pitted, he returned to the pits for work on the right front fender that had been damaged when the wheel had disengaged. With the fender no longer rubbing on the tire, he then rejoined as the last car on the lead lap, his Ford ready to race again.

“Everybody just did their job,” said Fennig, who is curently making the calls for Matt Kenseth’s Roush Fenway Racing entry. “Kurt pulled it up and we worked on it and he went back out and really stepped up. He did a super job that day.”

While Busch worked his way back through the field, in part with the help of some of the days’ 14 caution flags and re-starts, which were the old-fashioned double file with lapped cars on the inside, a grim but determined Fennig manned the pit box. He kept the offending broken center of the right front wheel – the only part still on the car when Busch made his emergency stop – under his foot.

“I took the broken part and (kept) it there on the pit box,” said Fennig. “I didn’t want everybody looking at it. I didn’t want it to become a distraction.” It was not until after the race

Crew chief Jimmy Fennig and Kurt Busch won the first Chase.

that Fennig examined the offending wheel and its broken center. “I think what we had was an oblong hole in the wheel (for the mounting stud) and one of the nuts backed off,” he said. Asked if he thought there might have been any sabotage, Fennig’s reply was confident. “Not really,” he said.

Although no green-white-checkered rule existed at the time, the race came down to a two-lap shootout after the 14th caution. By then, Busch was in fifth place, Johnson in fourth, Gordon in third and Busch’s Roush Racing teammate Greg Biffle in second place behind leader Tony Stewart. They rolled to the green in single file, according to the rules for the final ten laps.

As Busch’s luck would have it, after some contact with Gordon, Biffle shot into the lead while Stewart, Gordon and Johnson, in the high groove, fought over second behind him. Johnson won the three-wide contest, but by then trailed Biffle by several car lengths. Had the Californian been able to take the lead, he could have won the title from Busch by two points. As it was, he lost by eight to Busch, who held on to fifth position at the finish.

In addition to a Roush Racing teammate preventing Johnson from winning the race and the title, the wheel that rolled to the right, which proved to be the right way for Busch, was most decisive. With the restarts used at the time, which allowed lapped cars to start in the lower lane, it might have been possible for Busch to regain the lead lap. But it would have been a tall order to repair the damaged fender, regain a lap and then get back to the front of the field.

“You always think about that kind of stuff happening,” said Fennig, who won his only Sprint Cup championship as a crew chief that year. “You always try to do everything you can to put all the right stuff together. But if something happens, sometimes there’s not much you can do about it.”

And sometimes, with a little luck, there is.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, November 20 2010
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