Vickers takes Busch title

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) – Brian Vickers became NASCAR’s youngest champion ever Saturday, claiming the Busch Series title with an 11th-place finish behind first-time winner Kasey Kahne at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The 20-year-old Vickers regained a lost lap and finished 11th in the season-ending Ford 300. That was just enough to hold off 1995 series champion David Green, who finished ninth and wound up 14 points back, the second-closest margin in series history.

The closest finish in the series came in 1992, when Joe Nemechek beat Bobby Labonte by three points.

“This is everything I’ve dreamed of and everything I’ve worked for my whole life,” said Vickers, who will move up to the Nextel Cup Series in 2004, the youngest full-time driver ever in NASCAR’s top series.

The previous youngest driver to win a NASCAR championship was 21-year-old Rob Moroso, who took the Busch title in 1989.

Green, who started the day 22 points behind Vickers, nearly pulled it out despite losing three laps early in the race. He lost two laps when he cut down a tire running over debris from a wreck, and a third when he was penalized by NASCAR for coming directly into the pits without using the safety lane.

The 45-year-old veteran made up two of the laps with timely caution flags. He stayed on the track on two different occasions while other drivers pitted under green. He regained the lead lap under NASCAR’s new rule giving a lap back to the first driver a lap down when a caution flag waves.

“Yeah, losing (the championship) by a couple of positions is hard to swallow,” an emotional Green said. “But Brian is a great kid and a great star and a good champion.”

Vickers was lapped by the leaders in the early going, but he, too, got the lap back under the new NASCAR rule.

The No. 5 Chevrolet that Vickers drives is fielded by Hendrick Motorsports, which joined Roush Racing and Richard Childress Racing as the only teams to have won championships in each of NASCAR’s top three series – Craftsman Trucks, Busch and what has been known as Winston Cup.

Winston Cup race

Champion Matt Kenseth still has some business he would like to take care of before he begins to savor his success.

Kenseth wrapped up the Winston Cup title last week at Rockingham after dominating the points race most of the year. But, heading into today’s season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the new champ hasn’t won since the third race of the season in Las Vegas.

“People keep asking me if it bothers me that I’ve only won one race this year,” Kenseth said Saturday, moments before starting the final practice session of the season.

“I look at everything we accomplished this season: leading the points nearly the whole year and racing competitively in just about every race and, no, it doesn’t bother me. But, we’re competitive, and we always want to win races.”

Though he has gone 32 races without getting to Victory Lane, Kenseth leads the series with 25 top-10 finishes. He failed to finish only once this season.

Still, if Kenseth doesn’t win today, he will be the first champion since Benny Parsons in 1973 with only one victory, a statistic he would rather not share.

In addition to wanting to avoid a one-win season, Kenseth would love to add the distinction of winning the last race in NASCAR’s 33-year Winston Cup era.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. first became a sponsor for NASCAR’s top stock car series in 1971 and it’s Winston brand has been the series title sponsor since 1982.

Financial losses, job cuts and growing government regulation of tobacco products finally prompted RJR to end its involvement with NASCAR, and 2004 will be the first year of what the sanctioning organization hopes will be a similar long and successful run for the Nextel Cup.

“I’ve thought about that a little bit,” Kenseth said. “It’s pretty cool. Winston has done a great amount for this sport and, since I’ve been alive, it’s always been the Winston Cup championship and I’ve always dreamed about that.”

This will also be the inaugural Cup race on the 1-1/2-mile oval since it was rebuilt from a virtually flat track, with 6 degrees of banking, to one with 20 degrees of banking.

In two previous configurations, the Homestead track produced little passing and races relying mostly on pit and fuel strategies. Track officials and drivers are hoping the new banked track – more than 10 mph faster and with at least two racing grooves – will produce more exciting racing.

“I think the track is already awesome and I think it’s going to get better with age,” Kenseth said.

Four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon said passing in both the truck race on Friday and the Busch race on Saturday make him optimistic about the Cup race.

“In practice, you don’t really race the same way,” Gordon said. “You get out there in the race with 43 cars and you get desperate and starting moving around and finding different ways of getting by.

“There’s an awful lot of grip right now because of the new pavement but, at least you have options to try to find some clean air.”

Gordon goes into today’s race fifth in the season standings and with a long shot chance of catching second-place Jimmie Johnson, his teammate and driver of a car co-owned by Gordon. Johnson leads third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 38 points, fourth-place Ryan Newman by 103 and Gordon by 137 in the most important points battle remaining.

“Second place is important because it’s pride,” Gordon said. “It’s the money it pays and you’re trying to build for next year.”

Kenseth will collect $4.25 million from Winston for his championship, while the second place driver will get $1.7 million. Fifth place pays $925,000.