The director yells that the cameras are ready to roll and the
stars are needed on the set, and suddenly here they come, the six
young men who hold the future of NASCAR in their hands. Stepping
out of their individual motor homes, they meet and stride
shoulder-to-shoulder through the frosty winter morning at Concord
(N.C.) Motorsports Park, each gliding along with the cool of a
mountain lion. Except for a film crew of 100, the track is empty.
But as on race day, when 120,000 fans gather in the grandstands,
every set of eyes locks onto the six young men. ¬∂ "There they
are," a crew member yells. "The Young Guns are in the house!"
It's mid-December and the six Nextel Cup drivers--Kurt Busch,
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth
and Ryan Newman--are about to shoot a commercial for Gillette. In
front of pit lane they sit on a semicircle of racing tires. Their
breath white puffs, they talk like kids back in school after
Christmas break. This is the first time that NASCAR's Young Guns,
as they've been tagged by countless headline writers, have been
together since the 2003 season ended, and what do they chat
about? The O.C.? MTV? Boozy nights with their buddies?
"Getting old sucks," says Newman, 26.
"I can't do hard workouts anymore," adds Kenseth, 31. "If I do, I
won't be able to get out of bed the next morning."
"Dudes," says Earnhardt Jr., who is all of 29. "I'm starting to
get random pains."
Young Guns? These guys? Time to reveal a secret: The Guns have
The numbers are staggering. Last year Busch, Earnhardt, Harvick,
Johnson, Kenseth and Newman won 19 of the 36 Cup races (52.7%).
They took 16 poles (44.4%) and had 75 top five finishes. In the
points standings they finished first (Kenseth), second (Johnson),
third (Earnhardt), fifth (Harvick), sixth (Newman), and 11th
(Busch). Even veterans--most of whom would rather swig motor oil
than say something nice about a fresh-faced driver--admit that
the torch has been passed to this six-pack of NASCAR tall boys.
"There's never been a youth movement like this in the history of
NASCAR," says Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champion who's
now the lead commentator on Fox's racing telecasts. "In the past
we've had one or two young guns trickle in and make an impact,
but never anything like this."
"We're the new wave," says Johnson, 28. "Jeff Gordon, who is only
32, is almost considered old. It's crazy. But I expect all six of
us will do very, very well."
SI's pick to win it all in 2004 is Newman, who had eight
victories last season, the most in NASCAR. An '01 graduate of
Purdue with a B.S. in vehicle-structural engineering, Newman is
the most computer-savvy driver in NASCAR. While most teams make
technical adjustments during the week and then test them at the
track, Newman and his crew chief, 32-year-old Scott Borland,
tinker with their car virtually. Using wind-tunnel tests and
computer modeling, Newman and Borland determine the car's setup
even before they arrive at the track. Quite often they hit the
jackpot: Newman had a NASCAR-high 23 top five starts in '03.
"Last season I got caught up in a few crazy accidents that
resulted in seven DNFs," says Newman, the most soft-spoken of the
Guns. "Racing luck wasn't with us. But this year I expect to win
Though he won only one race, Kenseth cruised to his first Cup
title on the strength of 25 top 10 finishes. His most important
race of '03 was the UAW-GM Quality 500 in Charlotte on Oct. 11.
The previous two weeks had been disastrous: A blown engine at
Talladega and a crash at Kansas City had shaved 177 points from
his lead in the standings. But Kenseth showed up at Charlotte
exuding an air of we-got-this-in-the-bag confidence, hamming it
up with the crew as he always does. "That was the defining
moment," says Mike Calinoff, Kenseth's spotter, of the Charlotte
race, in which Kenseth finished eighth, padding his lead. "His
attitude rubbed off on the entire team."
If Earnhardt had avoided a few stumbles in 2003--he had six
finishes of 30th or worse--he might have overtaken Kenseth.
Still, Earnhardt cruised to a career-best 13 top five finishes
and, more significant, he matured both on the track and off.
Junior has always driven on superspeedways as if he were being
propelled by the jet stream, but last season he showed he could
also run well on intermediate tracks (he won at Phoenix in
November) and short tracks (he finished third at Martinsville
last April). He has at last developed into the kind of all-around
driver who can win it all.
Emblematic of the entire group of Guns, Junior also takes racing
more seriously now. He no longer stays up late downing Buds with
his buddies, and he now keeps fit by sparring in a boxing ring he
installed in his garage. Next week will mark the third
anniversary of his father's death at Daytona, and it's taken
almost that long for Junior to emerge from Senior's shadow. But
glance into the stands on race day and it's clear that Junior is
now at least as popular as his father ever was. "After my dad's
death I struggled to figure out who I was," says Junior. "I feel
like I've figured that out now."
After finishing fifth in points as a rookie in '02, Johnson, 28,
took second last year. His success can be traced to his
relationship with crew chief Chad Knaus. Both are young (Knaus is
32) non-Southerners (Johnson hails from El Cajon, Calif., Knaus
from Rockford, Ill.), and each possesses a rare-in-racing mellow
streak. The duo has now been in the top 10 in points for 69
consecutive weeks, NASCAR's longest active streak. "Now that we
have more experience together," says Johnson, "Chad and I feel
like we should be favorites to win the title."
More experience will also benefit Busch, who at 25 is the baby of
the group--and sometimes acts the part. He won four races in '03,
but the victories were overshadowed by an incident last Aug. 17
at Michigan International Speedway. After he and Jimmy Spencer
made contact during the Michigan 400, Busch radioed his crew and,
not thinking that anyone else was listening, reported that he had
tried to "flatten [Spencer's] fender." After the race Spencer
punched Busch in the nose. Busch told reporters he'd done nothing
to provoke Spencer. But when Busch's in-car audiotape was made
public, he was put on probation for the rest of '03. "Things can
get blown of out proportion," says Busch. "It can happen if you
don't mind your p's and q's."
For the past few months Busch has participated in a mentoring
program, meeting with veteran drivers who are trying to help him
become a better citizen of NASCAR Nation. If Busch can clean up
his act, there's no question he has the talent to give Roush
Racing its second straight title. "Kurt's got great instincts on
everything," says team owner Jack Roush, "except maybe, on some
occasions, the way he handles what goes on between his ears."
Harvick, 28, also is no stranger to p.r. problems. After the
Sept. 6 race in Richmond he jumped on top of Ricky Rudd's car as
if on a trampoline. Though Harvick claimed that Rudd had spun him
out intentionally with eight laps to go, NASCAR fined Harvick
$35,000 and put him on probation. "I will not back down to
anyone," says Harvick. "I sometimes need to be smarter, but
that's not going to change how I drive."
Reunited last March with crew chief Todd Berrier--his crew chief
when he won the Busch title in '01--Harvick sprinted to 17 top 10
finishes in 31 races. Like every other Gun, Harvick now appears
loaded for a title. "The time has come for myself and the other
young guys," says Harvick. "It's our turn."
After seven hours in the winter chill at Concord Motorsports
Park, the commercial wraps. The six drivers are free to go home.
At first, they amble slowly toward their cars. But as quick as
the flip of an ignition switch, they start jogging. With devious
smiles spreading across their faces, they start running faster,
then faster still. They're racing to see who can be the first one
to hop in his car, drive through the infield tunnel and disappear
into the darkening Carolina afternoon.
Maybe it means nothing--or maybe it means everything--but this
shootout isn't even close. One driver leaves the others in the
dust. The winner is ... Ryan Newman.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY SITTING PRETTY In '04 the track will belong to (from left) Newman, Kenseth, Johnson, Harvick, Busch and Earnhardt.
COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS STANFORD/GETTY IMAGES JR. ACHIEVER Over the past four seasons Earnhardt has matured into an all-around driver and a title threat.
COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN CLEARY/ICON SMI NEWMAN
THIS YEAR'S SCHEDULE
It's a long, grueling road to September--then things really heat up
DATE EVENT PLACE
FEB. 7* BUDWEISER SHOOTOUT Daytona International Speedway
FEB. 15 DAYTONA 500 Daytona International Speedway
FEB. 22 SUBWAY 400 North Carolina Speedway
MARCH 7 UAW-DAIMLERCHRYSLER 400 Las Vegas Motor Speedway
MARCH 14 GOLDEN CORRAL 500 Atlanta Motor Speedway
MARCH 21 CAROLINA DODGE DEALERS 400 Darlington Raceway
MARCH 28 FOOD CITY 500 Bristol Motor Speedway
APRIL 4 SAMSUNG/RADIOSHACK 500 Texas Motor Speedway
APRIL 18 ADVANCE AUTO PARTS 500 Martinsville Speedway
APRIL 25 AARON'S 499 Talladega Superspeedway
MAY 2 AUTO CLUB 500 California Speedway
MAY 15 PONTIAC PERFORMANCE 400 Richmond International Raceway
MAY 22* NEXTEL ALL-STAR CHALLENGE Lowe's Motor Speedway
MAY 30 COCA-COLA 600 Lowe's Motor Speedway
JUNE 6 MBNA AMERICA 400 Dover International Speedway
JUNE 13 POCONO 500 Pocono Raceway
JUNE 20 MICHIGAN 400 Michigan International Speedway FOX/1 p.m.
JUNE 27 DODGE/SAVE MART 350 Infineon Raceway
JULY 3 PEPSI 400 Daytona International Speedway
JULY 11 TROPICANA 400 Chicagoland Speedway
JULY 25 NEW ENGLAND 300 N.H. International Speedway TNT/1:30 p.m.
AUG 1 PENNSYLVANIA 500 Pocono Raceway
AUG. 8 BRICKYARD 400 Indianapolis Motor Speedway NBC/2 p.m.
AUG. 15 SIRIUS AT THE GLEN Watkins Glen International TNT/1:30 p.m.
AUG. 22 MICHIGAN 400 Michigan International Speedway
AUG. 28 SHARPIE 500 Bristol Motor Speedway
SEPT. 5 POP SECRET 500 California Speedway
SEPT. 11 CHEVY MONTE CARLO 400 Richmond International Raceway TNT/7 p.m.
SEPT. 19+ SYLVANIA 300 N.H. International Speedway TNT/12:30 p.m.
SEPT. 26 MBNA AMERICA 400 Dover International Speedway TNT/12:30 p.m.
OCT. 3 EA SPORTS 500 Talladega Superspeedway
OCT. 10 BANQUET 400 Kansas Speedway
OCT. 16 UAW-GM QUALITY 500 Lowe's Motor Speedway
OCT. 24 SUBWAY 500 Martinsville Speedway
OCT. 31 BASS PRO SHOPS MBNA 500 Atlanta Motor Speedway
NOV. 7 CHECKER AUTO PARTS 500 Phoenix International Raceway NBC/3 p.m.
NOV. 14 MOUNTAIN DEW SOUTHERN 500 Darlington Raceway
NOV. 21 FORD 400 Homestead-Miami Speedway NBC/12:30 p.m.
+ Start of the Chase for the Championship
THE TOP 20
On Sunday the new NASCAR season goes green. SI predicts how the
Nextel Cup standings will look once the checkered flag waves on
the final race, in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 21.
1 Ryan Newman's always excelled on Friday--he has 18 poles in
NEWMAN 79 career Cup races--and this season he'll be the star
2 Dale If Junior can avoid those point-sapping 30th-or-worse
EARNHARDT JR. finishes--he had six in '03--he'll battle Newman
for the title.
3 Jimmie With six top three finishes in the final six races of
JOHNSON 2003, Johnson enters the season with more momentum
than any other driver.
4 Jeff With his messy divorce from ex-wife Brooke now in his
GORDON rearview mirror, Gordon is primed to contend for a
fifth points title.
5 Matt The most consistent man in NASCAR will need to win more
KENSETH than one race--his total last year--to defend his Cup
6 Kevin Driving Dale Earnhardt's Chevy with a never-back-down
HARVICK style, Harvick is becoming more Intimidator-like by
7 Kurt Busch's eight wins in the past two seasons are the most
BUSCH of any driver except Newman (nine). He'll add a few
8 Tony The 2002 champ needs a quick start; last year he was
STEWART out of the running early after three May finishes of
40th or worse.
9 Michael No longer just a superspeedway specialist, Waltrip last
WALTRIP season had top five finishes on two intermediate
10 Jamie The reigning rookie of the year, who had 12 top 10
MCMURRAY finishes last year, is on the threshold of becoming an
11 Bobby Four years removed from a championship, Labonte slipped
LABONTE late last season, limping to four DNFs in the second
12 Sterling Once a title contender, Marlin hasn't been the same
MARLIN since cracking a vertebra in his neck in a 2002 wreck.
13 Rusty Entering year three of his winless slump, Wallace needs
WALLACE his pit crew to be more consistent if he's to get back
to Victory Lane.
14 Robby Gordon won both road races last year; now he needs to
GORDON get better on the tracks that don't have righthand
15 Greg The only driver to have won the Craftsmen Truck and the
BIFFLE Busch titles will benefit from the guidance of crew
chief Doug Richert.
16 Brian Hailed by many as the next Jeff Gordon, the 20-year-old
VICKERS Vickers should win rookie of the year honors.
17 Mark Martin's 17th-place finish in points last season was
MARTIN his worst since 1988; his best days appear to be behind
18 Dale Driving the UPS Ford, Jarrett didn't deliver in '03,
JARRETT finishing 26th in points. The 1999 champion should
19 Elliott Sadler was snakebit in '03, getting caught in several
SADLER wrecks that weren't his fault. Expect his luck to
change in '04.
20 Terry After finishing 24th in points in '02, Texas Terry
LABONTE surged to 10th in the standings in '03. He's an oldie
(47) and still a goodie.