Kurt Busch held on in inaugural Chase the old-fashioned way

The inaugural Chase, in 2004, remains the only one that can be remembered in absolute terms.

There is no doubt about its low point. It came on the dismal morning of Oct. 24, with an eerily low ceiling of clouds over south-central Virginia, when a Hendrick Motorsports team plane crashed into a mountainside near Martinsville, killing all 10 people aboard.

And there is no questioning the high point, Jimmie Johnson's inspirational storm out of his team's grief to win three of the five races after the plane crash for a total of four of the last six of the season.

There is no arguing the turning point: the moment on the 93rd lap of the finale at Homestead-Miami when Kurt Busch's broken-off right-front wheel rolled down the straightaway to bring out a caution, just as Busch was able to duck onto pit road for repairs.

That allowed Busch to return to the race and finish fifth, enough to fend off his two greatest threats for the title, Johnson and Jeff Gordon. They finished second and third to Busch's then-Roush teammate, Greg Biffle, in the race -- and, therefore, second and third to Busch at the end of NASCAR's first Chase.

Johnson lost the title by only eight points, and Gordon by only 16. That was the kind of playoff NASCAR chairman Brian France was looking for when he implemented his revolutionary notion.

The only enhancement in fan appeal might have been if Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, had been in the hunt for the title to the wire. But Earnhardt, racing aggressively and going for the win at Atlanta in the seventh of 10 Chase races, wrecked himself out of contention. Not even a win the next week at Phoenix could bring him back.

Busch won only one of the 10 races of that Chase, the opener at Loudon, N.H., but hung on the old-fashioned way, with consistency.

That included the fifth-place finish at Homestead-Miami, out of what would have been sure disaster for him had the wheel broken off anywhere on the track but near the entrance to pit road, and had the wheel not caused enough of a hazard to bring out the caution that covered his pit stop.

The only fuzzy area to the inaugural Chase was its contrast with the old points system, under which Gordon would have won a fifth-career season championship.

"We should have won that championship regardless, whether it was under the old point system or the new point system," Gordon recalls. "Or could have won it, I should say, not should have. Because the right guy won it. He did the best job. … But Kurt having his tire [and wheel] problems and making it onto the pit road is definitely what won him the championship, I can tell you that."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.