WITH HIS cocksure attitude and wild-child driving style, Kyle Busch hasn't exactly won the affections of NASCAR fans—the 23-year-old Las Vegas native still draws the most boos at every track—but that's about the only thing he hasn't won lately.
With seven races remaining before the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts, Busch leads the series in victories (seven) and top five finishes (12) and holds a 262-point lead in the standings over Dale Earnhardt Jr. What's more, Busch and his number 18 Toyota will start the Chase with a sizable lead (perhaps as many as 70 points) by virtue of the 10 bonus points a driver earns for each regular-season victory.
"He's going to be tough to beat regardless of whether he has those points," says Carl Edwards. "But if you give him a head start, that's not good."
As the series heads to Indianapolis for Sunday's AllState 400 at the Brickyard, it's time to ask whether anyone can catch Busch. Here are the three drivers with the best chance.
On July 12 at Chicagoland Speedway, Johnson passed Busch for the lead with 16 laps left in the LifeLock.com 400. Finally Johnson, the two-time defending champion, had shown that he could outrun Busch. But with two to go, Busch snookered Johnson on a restart, passing him on the high line of the track and then blocking him as Busch won for the third time in four races.
Johnson, who's fifth in the standings, was disgusted afterward. An inspection of his lap times shows that he had the fastest car in the field that night. His times were also consistently faster than Busch's at Charlotte on May 25, at Dover on June 1, at Michigan on June 15 and at Daytona on July 5. "We've been running better than the 18 team for the last few weeks, but the results don't necessarily show that because of some bad luck," says Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief. "We're not as strong as we were last year, but we're getting there. And Jimmie learned a few things [at Chicagoland] against Kyle, and that's ultimately going to help us win the championship."
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Only Busch has been more consistent than Little E, who already has as many top 10s (12) as he did in all of 2007. Earnhardt's strategy for the Chase appears clear: Try to tally as many top fives and top 10s as possible and hope that Busch suffers a points-sapping 30th place or worse finish due to accident or mechanical failure. Says Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's crew chief, "I'll take top fives all day if they win us a championship, and I think they can."
Early in the season Edwards reached Victory Lane three times, but he has been quiet since, failing to win since April. He's fourth in the standings, but he can't be counted out of the postseason because his specialty is the 1.5-mile track, the setup in five of the 10 Chase races. Edwards's last two wins came at that distance.
That being said, the Cup is still Busch's to lose. He has won on every type of track, going back to early spring, and shows no signs of slowing. Cue the boo birds.
ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.
With four months still to go this season, three big-name drivers are already looking forward to 2009, when they'll be changing teams. Tony Stewart is leaving Joe Gibbs Racing for Haas CNC Racing, which will make him NASCAR's highest-paid driver and co-owner of the newly named Stewart-Haas Racing. He'll likely struggle in '09—Stewart-Haas will resemble a start-up—but the offer was too good to pass up. Ryan Newman is also moving on after nine seasons with Penske Racing. Since winning the Daytona 500 in February, Newman has fallen from first to 16th in the standings, and a change of scenery was needed. He's rumored to be headed to Stewart-Haas as well. And Casey Mears is expected to sign with Richard Childress Racing. He's winless and 24th in points for Hendrick Motorsports and has been a major disappointment there. If he lands at Childress, the 30-year-old Mears will have one season to prove that he belongs at the Cup level.
SAM SHARPE (CAR)
TOP TEAM With seven wins already in 2008, Busch (inset, below) will have an edge heading into the Chase.
[See caption above]