One note of interest for the 2004 NASCAR season -- in addition to its now being known as the NASCAR NEXTEL season -- was new chairman Brian Z. France's decision to move the sport west. Texas and Phoenix, Arizona, tracks gained a second event, while Rockingham's North Carolina Speedway hosted its last.

The most noticeable change for 2004 was revamp of the points race into the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup," which narrowed the field of contenders for the final races of the season. In response, the points race in 2004 was the closest in NASCAR history and television ratings surged 30 percent over their 2003 levels.

Check out other key moments in the 2004 season -- and see pictures -- with the 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup chronology below.

January 20, 2004

NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian Z. France announces radical changes to the method used to determine the annual champion in 2004. Officially called the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup," the new points structure calls the top 10 ­drivers in the points standings through the first 26 races compete for the title over the final 10 races.

February 15, 2004: Daytona 500

­Dale Earnhardt, Jr., becomes the third son of a former Daytona 500 winner to capture the checkered flag at "The Great American Race." The previous father-son winners were Lee and Richard Petty and Bobby and Davey Allison.


Elliott Sadler takes a spin during the 2004 EA Sports 500, a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup series event.
Elliott Sadler's #38 Ford breaks loose in the tri-oval area of Talladega Superspeedway on the final lap of the Oct. 3 EA Sports 500. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. took the checkered flag as Sadler's car sailed through the air and landed on all four wheels near the finish line. Sadler got credit for a 23rd-place finish, losing 10 positions during his 190-mph pirouette. See more pictures of NASCAR.

February 22, 2004: Subway 400

Matt Kenseth nips rookie Kasey Kahne to win the Subway 400 at Rockingham. The thrilling contest is the final NASCAR Cup Series event at North Carolina Motor Speed­way; the race will be moved to Phoenix.

April 25, 2004: Aaron's 499

Jeff Gordon wins the controversial Aaron's 499 at Talladega when a caution flag freezes the field as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., attempts a decisive pass for the lead. Rules implemented in late 2003 ­prohibit "racing back to the flag" ­during a caution period.

May 14, 2004

NASCAR announces that North Carolina Speedway in Rocking­ham will no longer host a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup event in 2005, and Darlington Raceway, the nation's first superspeedway, will host only one race in '05. NASCAR also announces that the Phoenix and Texas tracks will each host a second race in '05.

Casey Mears and Ward Burton lead the pack to start the 2004 Brickyard 400, a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup event.
Casey Mears and Ward Burton follow the pace car prior to the start of the Aug. 8 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mears earned his first career pole and kept alive a Mears family tradition by taking the pole at Indianapolis. His uncle Rick Mears won six poles for the famed Indianapolis 500. Mears finished 26th. Jeff Gordon won the event for the fourth time in 11 tries.

June 6, 2004: MBNA 400

Mark Martin ends a two-year drought with a come-from-behind ­win in the MBNA 400 "A Salute to Heroes" at Dover International ­Speedway.

July 18, 2004

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., holding down second place in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup points standings, suffers serious burns during practice for an American LeMans Series race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

September 5, 2004: Pop Secret 500

Elliott Sadler wins the inaugural Pop Secret 500 at California Speedway. It is the first year for the event, which had been the traditional Labor Day Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway since 1950.

Ryan Newman passes DAle Jarrett in the 2004 DHL 400, a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup series event.
Ryan Newman sailed past Dale Jarrett with 17 laps remaining to take the lead in the June 20 DHL 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Newman went on to record his first victory of the 2004 season. Newman, who had won eight races in 2003 and finish sixth in the points standings, would win only one more time in '04 and finish seventh in points. Jarrett finished third in the DHL 400 after starting 37th.

September 11, 2004: Chevy Rock & Roll 400

Jeremy Mayfield wins the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Rich­mond International Raceway. Mayfield ends a winless skid dating back to June 2000. He also grabs one of the coveted spots in the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup."

September 19, 2004: Sylvania 300

Kurt Busch scores a lopsided victory in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Raceway, site of the first race of the new Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., are tied for the points lead with nine races left.

October 3, 2004: EA Sports 500

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., takes the lead in the title chase with a win in the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Super­speedway. During the television interview in victory lane, Junior's response to a question includes an expletive. Following a precedent set earlier in the year, NASCAR docks Earnhardt $10,000 and 25 points, dropping him from first to second in the standings.

Greg Biffle leads Kurt Bush and Jeff Gordon in the 2004 Ford 400, a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup series event.
Greg Biffle leads Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the Nov. 21 Ford 400. Biffle won the season finale as Busch wrapped up the NASCAR ­NEXTEL Cup Championship with a fifth-place finish. Busch overcame a broken wheel and several unscheduled pit stops to finish in the top five and win the title by eight points over Jimmie Johnson. Gordon finished third, and also wound up third in the final points standings.

October 24, 2004: Subway 500

Tragedy strikes when the Hendrick Motorsports company plane crashes into a foggy mountainside minutes before the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway. None of the 10 people onboard survive. Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson wins, and is informed of the tragic incident after the race.

November 10, 2004

NASCAR president Mike Helton lifts the long-standing ban on sponsorship from hard liquor companies effective with the 2005 season. NASCAR teams can now recruit sponsorship dollars from corporations that manufacture "spirits."

November 14, 2004: Mountain Dew Southern 500

Jimmie Johnson, ­counted out of the "Chase" a month ago, racks up his fourth win in the last five races in the final Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Johnson has rallied from a 247-point deficit and ninth place in the standings to 18 points behind leader Kurt Busch with one race remaining.

Elliott Sadler wins the 2004 Samsung/Radio Shack 500, a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup series event.
Elliott Sadler guns his #38 Ford across the finish line a half car length in front of #9 Kasey Kahne to score a victory in the April 4 Samsung/Radio Shack 500 at Texas Motor Speed­way. The triumph was Sadler's first in three years. Kahne finished second for the third time in the first seven races of his rookie season.

November 21, 2004: Ford 400

Roush Racing hits the jackpot as Greg Biffle wins the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Kurt Busch finishes fifth to claim the 2004 "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup" championship. Bush's eight-point margin over Jimmie Johnson is the closest finish in the 56 years of NASCAR Cup Series racing.

Examine how the top 50 drivers lined up in light of the new points system with our 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings on the next page.

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