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Original Issue

Early Sparks and Late Runs

With more than half of NASCAR's regular season in the books, here's a nod to some of the magic moments plus a glimpse into the crystal ball. With racers flying to the finish in a bid to qualify for the Chase, SI breaks down the field

Best Team Move

When Jack Roushannounced in April that he was overhauling two of his race teams, changing thecrew chiefs of Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray, neither driver was happy withthe news. But within weeks Roush was looking like the smartest owner in NASCAR.As soon as Roush engineer Wally Brown replaced Bob Osborne as Edwards's crewchief, Edwards's season took off: He moved from 22nd to 13th in points over thenext three races. McMurray also jumped in the standings, from 21st to 14th,after Osborne replaced Jimmy Fennig atop his pit box. (Fennig took over Roush'sBusch program.) Roush now has a shot at achieving his preseason goal of placingall five of his drivers in the Chase, just as he did in 2005.

Best SafetyCheck

On June 11 JeffGordon was roaring at 200 mph down the frontstretch at Pocono when his brakesfailed. He smashed into the Turn 1 wall, his car crunching like an accordion.The impact, as measured by Gordon's onboard data recorder, was greater than theestimated impact in the crash that killed Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001,yet Gordon walked away. Two reasons: the soft-wall SAFER Barrier that lines thetrack and the halo-shaped headrest on Gordon's seat. Both were developed afterEarnhardt's death. "I feel very fortunate," said Gordon.

Best Pit-roadTiff

NASCAR's long andcolorful history of pit-road altercations gained a surprising new chapter atTexas on April 9. After Kurt Busch caused Greg Biffle to wreck during theSamsung/RadioShack 500, Biffle's girlfriend, Nicole Lunders, who was watchingfrom Biffle's pit box, slammed a water bottle to the ground in fury and, infull view of TV cameras, marched to Busch's pit, where she confronted EvaBryan, Busch's fiancée. Lunders gave Bryan a verbal thrashing, telling her, ineffect, that her man was out of line. "[Nicole] was just upset ... andreally felt like Kurt was going to end up hurting somebody," said Biffle."And that's what she conveyed to Eva."

Best Rookie

The 2006 rookieclass may be the deepest in years, but Denny Hamlin has stamped himself as thelikely valedictorian. Hamlin, 25, opened the season with a win in the BudweiserShootout at Daytona, and at Pocono got his first points-race victory. He has areal shot at the Chase. Says teammate Tony Stewart, "I think [Denny's] onthe verge of something big."

Best One-liner

"He's what welike to call a bird with no feathers.  He just doesn't know where he'sgoing."
--Tony Stewart, on Kyle Busch and his propensity for causing accidents

Who Will Qualifyfor the Chase?


JIMMIE JOHNSON,number 48 Lowe's Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports If he can avoid anotherlate-summer slump, Johnson will enter the Chase as the championshipfavorite.

MATT KENSETH, 17DeWalt Ford, Roush Racing Flag bearer for NASCAR's superteam, the '03 champwill try to give Jack Roush his third title in four years.

TONY STEWART, 20The Home Depot Chevy, Joe Gibbs Racing The reigning champion can become thefirst driver to repeat since Jeff Gordon in '98.

MARK MARTIN, 6 AAAFord, Roush Racing In his final Cup season the 47-year-old has beenimpressively consistent; more of the same could bring the four-time pointsrunner-up his first Cup championship.

KASEY KAHNE, 9Dodge Dealers/UAW/SRT Dodge, Evernham Motorsports After finishing 23rd in '05Kahne has had a breakout year, showing the patience needed to winchampionships.


DALE EARNHARDTJR., 8 Budweiser Chevy, Dale Earnhardt Inc. NASCAR's most popular driver hasbeen quietly solid in '06; his team is poised for a stretch run.

GREG BIFFLE, 16National Guard Ford, Roush Racing The Biff started slowly, but he's a chargerwith a history of heating up in late summer.

CARL EDWARDS, 99Office Depot Ford, Roush Racing He's had an up-and-down season, but 2005'sback-flipping sensation is settling in. A four-time winner last season, he's aborn racer who could go on a tear.

JEFF GORDON, 24DuPont Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports This team is rebounding from an off year;watch out for the four-time champ.

JEFF BURTON, 31Cingular Wireless Chevy, Richard Childress Racing The steady Burton is havinghis best year since taking third in 2000.


KEVIN HARVICK, 29GM Goodwrench Chevy, Richard Childress Racing Riding the RCR revival, Happy hasracked up the top 5s--and is a threat to win in any race.

KYLE BUSCH, 5Kellogg's Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports If he can keep his emotions in check, thetalented sophomore could string together some top finishes.

DENNY HAMLIN, 11FedEx Freight Chevy, Joe Gibbs Racing The kid has proved he can win, now he hasto beat history: No rookie has qualified for the Chase.

JAMIE MCMURRAY, 26Crown Royal Ford, Roush Racing Still adjusting to his new ride at Roush,McMurray had only five top 10s in 15 starts.

KURT BUSCH, 2Miller Lite Dodge, Penske Racing South The 2004 champ has shown flashes ofdominance--he won at Bristol and was second at Pocono--but consistency is whatcounts in the chase for the Chase; Busch needs to concentrate on amassing top10s.


CASEY MEARS, 42Texaco/Havoline Dodge, Chip Ganassi Racing.

RYAN NEWMAN, 12Alltel Dodge, Penske Racing South.

DALE JARRETT, 88UPS Ford, Robert Yates Racing.

ELLIOTT SADLER, 38Pedigree Ford, Robert Yates Racing.

CLINT BOWYER, 07Jack Daniel's Chevy, Richard Childress Racing.



McMurray and Roush














The Nextel Cup





 Gordon'scrackup at Pocono