The Winston Cup season is among the longest in professional sports, spanning nine months and 36 races, but 24-year-old Kurt Busch hated to see it end.
He was that hot.
Busch won Sunday's Ford 400 from the pole and finished third in the final standings. It was his fourth victory of the year, third in the past five races.
"What a day. What a year," said Busch, whose four wins were second to Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth's series-leading five. "To cap off the run we put together in the final quarter of the season, it's just an awesome day. It's an awesome year."
Busch, in his second season driving the No. 97 Ford, benefited from an offseason crew chief swap that paired him with veteran Jimmy Fennig. Busch finished 27th in the standings as a rookie but had 20 top 10s in 2002.
Busch, who led each of the final seven races, led four times for 28 laps Sunday, passing rookie Ryan Newman with 10 to go.
"We've been on a torrid pace here at the end, somewhat of a mind-boggling pace to gather up points, and it's great to be in position at the final race of the year to finish third," Busch said. "We'll continue striving. We're surely going to go after it next year."
GORDON RALLIES: Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, forced to use a provisional for the first time in his 10-year career, finished fifth. In the past two races, he rallied from seventh to fourth in the standings.
"Any time you've been the champion, all you want from then on is to be the champion," said Gordon, who won three times after snapping a 31-race winless streak in August.
"Right now, we're looking back at where we could have done better. We're going to go home and make sure we take care of all those things in the offseason to make sure we come out strong next year to win the championship."
WINLESS WALLACE: Rusty Wallace's streak of at least one win a season came to an end at 16 with a 14th-place run. He was a runner-up four times this season.
He is winless in 62 races.
"It's probably one of the saddest parts of my life today, I'll tell you that," Wallace said. "To not win and to fall back to seventh in points, it was just a terrible day _ everything was."
THE FUTURE IS NOW: Rookies Jimmie Johnson and Newman closed out the season with top-10 runs and finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in the standings.
Johnson won three races, but Newman claimed the rookie of the year title on the strength of 14 top-five finishes. Newman, who had one victory, has earned top rookie honors in every series in which he has raced.
"It's a goal and it's something you don't want to lose," Newman said of the streak. "It's been a great season. Even when we struggled, whether it was an engine failure or me punching a hole in the radiator, we fought back, and that's important to me as a rookie."
SCARY MOMENT: Fire broke out in Bobby Labonte's pit when a spark from the exhaust ignited fuel. Gas man Peter Jellen, who was wearing a fire suit and full-faced helmet, was treated for minor burns. No one else was injured.
LAST HURRAH: Tony Stewart gave Pontiac its fourth Winston Cup championship, joining Joe Weathlerly (1962), Wallace (1989) and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Labonte (2000). Next season, the team switches to Chevrolet.
_ JOANNE KORTH