By Andrew Charman

Kurt Busch held onto the points lead he had nurtured through the last few weeks to win his first NASCAR Nextel Cup, but the series finale at Miami's Homestead finale proved a nail-biter with Hendrick Motorsports team-mates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson both coming close to snatching the title. It was a great day for Busch's Roush Racing squad as almost un-noticed his team-mate Greg Biffle won the race.

The drama started early - barely had Kurt Busch earned his five point bonus by leading the first of 267 laps in his #97 Sharpie/Irwin Ford than the yellow was flying, as at the back of the field Mike Bliss and Hermie Sadler clashed. The green flew on lap six and Greg Biffle moved the #16 National Guard/Subway Ford past his Roush Racing team-mate, Ryan Newman's #12 ALLTEL Dodge in third with the next chase contender, Jeff Gordon's #24 Dupont Chevrolet, behind. But again the caution flew, as Robby Gordon, Jeff Burton, Bobby Hamilton Jr, Boris Said and Casey Mears all bounced off each other. All this aided Jimmie Johnson, second in the points at the start of the day but starting the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet from 39th.

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On the lap 10 restart Gordon passed Busch for second. Jeff needed the five-point lead bonus but Biffle had been fast all weekend, and steadily drew away from the Dupont Chevy, 2.5 seconds clear by lap 25. Of the other title contenders, Dale Earnhardt Jr lay 11th, Mark Martin 16th, while Johnson was up to 22nd.

The caution was out again on lap 49 for debris, just in time for pit stops. Biffle was quickest out, while Busch leap-frogged Gordon, and a slowish stop for Johnson dropped him from 11th to 18th. The green flew on lap 53, with Biffle again drawing away from Busch and Gordon. Martin was also on the move, the #6 Viagra Ford up to eighth while Earnhardt's increasingly sliding #8 Budweiser Chevrolet slipped to 12th, Johnson rapidly moving past to hit the top 10 by lap 66.

Drama hit on lap 93 as Busch suffered a flat. As he reached pit road the wheel parted company, the Ford just avoiding the end of the pit wall, bringing out the yellow and thus staying on the lead lap. All the field pitted, Biffle leading Newman, Tony Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet and Gordon back to green on lap 98, Johnson seventh, Martin eighth, Earnhardt 10th and Busch restarting 28th.

Martin was quickly past Johnson as up front Stewart went by Newman and set off after Biffle. But no-one seemed able to live with the #16 Ford, the car continuing to pull away until his progress was arrested on lap 114 as Jeremy Mayfield's #19 UAW/Dodge Dealers Dodge punctured and found the wall. Everyone headed back to pit road, Newman and Elliott Sadler's #38 M&M's Ford quickest out ahead of Gordon, Johnson and Biffle while Busch's stop was a confused disaster, dropping the #97 back down to 25th. And to add a further twist, light rain now started to fall.

Gordon now feared he had a tyre going down and hit pit road, rejoining back with Busch as the green finally flew on lap 132. Biffle immediately went past Johnson to ensure the Chevy man couldn't earn his five bonus points, the #16 car soon also passing second-placed Sadler and retaking the lead on lap 147, just as the caution flew again, Mike Bliss backing the #0 Netzero Highspeed Chevrolet into the wall. This time several cars took fuel only, Stewart leading out Kevin Harvick's #29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet, Bobby Labonte's #18 Interstate Batteries version and Biffle, while Busch and Gordon resumed 18th and 19th.

At the lap 152 restart Stewart got away while Harvick got nudged out of the way by the lap-down Kenseth, Biffle going by, as further back Earnhardt was held up by traffic and slipped back into a seriously tense battle which Gordon and Busch were in the middle of. Luckily the inevitable crash happened behind them, Elliot Sadler sliding into an impact with the pit wall.

Everyone stayed out this time and at the green on lap 161 Stewart led Biffle while Gordon passed Busch and two others, only for chaos to break out again, Kasey Kahne ending an excellent rookie season with a hard hit against the concrete while further back Earnhardt tapped Travis Kvapil into an even harder impact with both inside and outside walls. Cue caution number eight.

The lap 171 restart proved crucial for leader Stewart, who was still weaving as they came off turn four, which was against the rules and earned him a black flag. But before he could come in, the yellow flew yet again, for debris. Several cars pitted but notably not Gordon, and when they reformed the Dupont Chevy sat in fourth place and the championship lead, while Busch was back to 24th after another long stop as he continued to complain of right front tyre problems.

Labonte led Newman away with 90 to go but was soon passed by the Dodge as Gordon moved into third, while the forgotten title contenders Earnhardt and Martin had recovered to sixth and seventh with Johnson just behind them, Busch only up to 16th. Now the cautions hit double figures, as Jeff Burton's #30 AOL Chevrolet was tapped by the punctured #41 Target Dodge of Casey Mears and shed its tyre over the track. This time Gordon came in, as did most others, though Martin stayed out and earned his five points. The green flew with 72 to go with Johnson in 11th and the points lead, Gordon and Earnhardt just behind and Busch 19th. Gordon quickly passed his team-mate as Busch also moved up a place, only for the caution to fly yet again as a cover fell off one of the lights on the start gantry, Earnhardt hitting it.

Everyone waited for as long as possible to pit so as to have nough fuel to go to the end. Rusty Wallace led back to the lap 207 restart in the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, while the top four title contenders were together in 20th place back. Gordon quickly got away from Johnson as Busch again slipped back, barely holding onto his title lead.

Lap 225 saw yet another yellow, this time for the detonated engine in Jeff Green's #43 Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge. Wallace pitted, leaving Newman in the lead from Stewart, Gordon fifth and in the title chase a single point down on 11th-placed Busch. On pit road, fingers were now being bitten to the bone...

The green flew on lap 232 and Gordon moved quickly into fourth, Busch into ninth behind Johnson, as up front Newman and Stewart fought each other for the lead, third-placed Dale Jarrett's #88 UPS Ford soon joining in. But Busch was now on the move, taking seventh and stretching his title advantage to 12 points. But we weren't finished with cautions, Martin Truex Jr blowing a tyre and setting up a final sprint with all three title contenders together.

The green flew with 10 to go and Gordon, knowing he needed to win to take the title, went to the bottom, tapping Joe Nemechek's lapped car out of the way while Busch sat pretty in seventh, waiting for the chequer - only to see leader Newman puncture and hit the wall. This set up a green-white chequer finale, along with the end of second-placed Jarrett's day as the Ford ran out of fuel.

At the restart Biffle snatched the lead and the win while Johnson went round Gordon for second, but none could do anything about Busch, Kurt coming home fifth to win the title by a whole eight points over Johnson. Suddenly his bad mood, which had got worse during the day, evaporated as he celebrated with doughnuts for the crowd. But those with reason to be happiest were NASCAR's rule makers - the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup had provided the closest finish to a series in the Cup's history, not settled until the last lap of the last race. Now we look forward to the 2005 championship - less than three months away...