Heading into the most wide-open title run yet, dark horse Kurt Busch has the strategy to grab a second Cup title
He walked through the garage at Michigan International Speedway on a Friday afternoon in mid-August, his chin raised high, his weary eyes darting left and right as if searching for oncoming traffic. Then, just as Kurt Busch neared stall number 64, where his blue number 2 Dodge was parked, the woman appeared.
She was tall, blonde and twentysomething, clearly going for the Daisy Duke look. She did not want Busch's autograph—though her tight-fitting T-shirt had his likeness emblazoned on the front—or a photograph or even a handshake. Rather, she had come to the Irish Hills of Michigan on this blazing summer day to deliver a message.
"I want one thing from you," she told Busch, breathing heavily as she wrapped her right hand around his neck. "Go out there and kick Jimmie Johnson's ass. I'm so sick of him and of him winning. He's weak this season."
Busch nodded in agreement, which was understandable. Whatever passion drove her, this woman was right: For the first time since Johnson began his domination of the Sprint Cup series in 2006, he appears vulnerable. Consider that Johnson (page 72) finished the regular season fifth in the standings, a career low since the Chase format was adopted in 2004; that he hasn't won a race since June; and that he has only three top 10 finishes in his last nine starts. "There's no question that teams have more confidence that they can beat Jimmie than in seasons past at this point," says driver Greg Biffle. "There are 10 guys who I think have a legitimate shot to win it this season."
Indeed, there is no clear-cut favorite in this season's 12-man Chase field, because every top driver in 2010 has flaws. Kevin Harvick won the regular-season points title with a blend of aggression (two of his three wins came on restrictor-plate tracks, where ruthlessness rules) and consistency, but he's not even in the top five when it comes to straight-line speed. Jeff Gordon finished third in the regular season, but he hasn't won a race in his last 55 starts. And if you believe the favorite is Denny Hamlin, whose six regular-season wins are the most of any driver on the circuit (Johnson's five are the second-most), think again. Though Hamlin won at Richmond last Saturday night, his average finish over his preceding 10 starts was a pedestrian 21.6. Finally, be cautious about Carl Edwards. He has come on strong in recent weeks—he has eight top 10 runs in his last nine starts and climbed from 12th to fourth in the standings—but he has led just 133 laps this season, second-lowest among the playoff racers, behind Matt Kenseth's 35.
So the Chase, which begins on Sunday with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, is as wide open as a West Texas highway at midnight. The consensus in the garage is that this season's charge to the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 21 will be the tightest since 2004, when, in the first year of the playoff format, Busch edged Johnson by eight points to win his only title.
"Someone is bound to get hot and go on a roll in the Chase," says Tony Stewart, who finished the regular season sixth in the standings. "The question is, Who will it be?"
Who will it be? It's a September afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway. A breath of autumn hangs in the air; the start of the Chase is two weeks away. SI's pick to hoist the Sprint Cup is standing in the infield hours before he will finish sixth in the penultimate race of the regular season. "I think we've got as good of a chance to win it all as anyone," says Busch, 32, who finished the regular season 10th in the standings and with more top 10s (15) than any other driver save Harvick (who had 17). "To me this year feels like '04. We've just got to go out and maybe win one race, have a bunch of top fives and top 10s, lead laps and not do anything stupid."
A simple enough recipe, but one that no one not named Jimmie Johnson has been able to follow in the past four seasons. There are five keys to winning the championship—touchstone moments that have proven to be pivotal in the six-year history of the Chase—and Busch, more than any other driver, appears primed to pass each of those acid tests.
• Start strong in New Hampshire.
How important is it to finish in the top 10 in the Chase opener? Well, only once in the Chase era has a driver finished worse than sixth in the fall race at Loudon and gone on to win the championship (Johnson, in 2006, when he came in 39th at the 1.058-mile oval). "You can't win the Chase at New Hampshire," says Biffle, "but you sure can lose it there."
Busch has three wins in 19 career starts at Loudon, and he finished third at the track on June 27. He'll be piloting a brand new car equipped with all the latest and greatest technology from Penske Racing. But what really makes Busch so formidable on flat tracks such as New Hampshire (those with little or no banking in the corners) is that he can control a loose race car (meaning the rear end slides up the track through the corners) as expertly as anyone in the sport.
"Kurt can just manhandle a car that isn't handling well," says Chris Osborne, the spotter for Penske's number 2 team, who spotted for Johnson from 2002 through '05. "The difference between Kurt and Jimmie is that Kurt is a bit more of a hard charger and Jimmie is a little more conservative. There are people in this sport who are left scratching their heads wondering how in the world Kurt pulls off some of the moves he does on the track. And this team is a lot like Jimmie's past championship teams. You can feel it building, and Kurt is our biggest strength. He can start dead last, and we know that we're in no way out of it."
Osborne believes Johnson will be the team's strongest opponent for the title. And Johnson did, in fact, win the June race at New Hampshire. The schedule sets up as beautifully for Johnson as it does for Busch, because his 10 favorite tracks on the Cup circuit just happen to fall in the Chase. This, as much as anything, has been the secret to Johnson's binge of four straight titles.
• Roll off the hauler fast at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 3.
It's an article of faith in the garage: To win the championship, a driver must perform well on the intermediate-length tracks. These 1.5-to-two-mile venues form the backbone of the Chase, hosting five of the 10 playoff races. This is why Kansas, the third race of the Chase and the first on an intermediate track, often provides the most telling moments of the fall.
Now more than at any other time in the Chase era, it's exceedingly difficult for teams to find and gain speed by making setup adjustments during prerace practice sessions. No one in the garage can say precisely why. "You're basically going to be as good as you are all weekend on that very first lap of the very first practice session," says Hamlin. "It's frustrating because you feel almost a little helpless, but that's just the way it is."
This is why on the Friday before the Kansas race everyone in the sport—owners, crew chiefs, pit crews, engineers—will closely monitor the speed chart as the first practice begins at noon CDT. The 2010 champion likely will be in the top three after the first lap.
Busch has fared well on the intermediate tracks this season. In nine starts at these venues he has two wins and six top 10s, which is one more top 10 than Johnson. When Busch won the championship in 2004 he finished sixth at Kansas—perhaps the most overlooked moment of his title run.
Busch also has a secret weapon: Steve Addington, who is widely regarded on the Cup scene as one of the top five crew chiefs in the sport. When he was calling the pit shots for Busch's younger brother, Kyle, in 2008 and '09, Addington won more races (12) than any crew chief other than Chad Knaus, who heads up Johnson's number 48 team.
• Survive Martinsville on Oct. 24.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Virginia, Martinsville is a .526-mile paperclip-shaped track that forces drivers to use their brakes more than at any other stop on the Cup schedule. This track taxes the stock cars—last year nine drivers, or 20.9% of the field, suffered mechanical failures in this race—and produces more fender-banging than any other track in the Chase. These two factors should help Busch run well here this fall.
Before blowing an engine at Michigan on Aug. 15, Busch hadn't experienced a mechanical failure since Nov. 2, 2008—a span of 60 races. So his equipment is as reliable as anyone else's in NASCAR. He also thrives on contact. Growing up in Las Vegas racing at The Bullring, a tight .375-mile oval, Busch developed a reputation for muscling competitors out of the way. The years haven't dulled his combativeness. "Kurt is easily one of the top three aggressive drivers in the Cup series," says one rival driver. "That serves him well most of the time, but he can also lose his cool and do some really dumb things on the track."
If Busch can maintain his composure behind the wheel, he should finish in the top 10 at Martinsville. Ever since he arrived as a full-time driver in the Cup series in 2001, he has been something of a short-track specialist: 11 of his 22 career wins have been at tracks that are 1.1 miles or shorter.
• Avoid the late-race Big One at Talladega on Halloween.
It's as quick and violent as a thunderclap, and it happens nearly every time the circuit stops at Talladega or Daytona: the Big One. Because NASCAR places restrictor plates on the carburetors to reduce speeds on the two superspeedways, the cars race in tight packs, separated by inches at 190 mph. One poorly timed yank of the wheel can trigger a 20-car pileup. The 'Dega Big One ruined Carl Edwards's title hopes in 2008—he finished second to Johnson in the final standings after wrecking with 14 laps to go at Talladega and finishing 29th in that race—and it probably will doom several drivers this year.
How best to avoid this late-race wreck when drivers start to gamble? Be in front of it, which is where Busch plans to be. He has led laps in the last four events at the 2.66-mile track.
• Lean on experience at Homestead.
Who was the last driver to prevail against Johnson when the points were close heading into the season's final race? Busch. In 2004 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, in what most press-box observers still consider the most thrilling race of the Chase era, Busch had a wheel come off while roaring onto pit road, fell back in the field, then brazenly darted through traffic to finish fifth, which was good enough to edge Johnson for the championship. At different times in that race, three drivers held the championship lead.
"I know what it takes to beat [Johnson's] team, and that's going to help us when we get to Homestead," Busch says. "I'm going to use that experience, be patient and put us in the right position at the right time to make our move. We have a definite plan for the entire playoff. I don't know if it's going to work, but I do know this: This is going to be one crazy Chase."
Now on SI.com
For Lars Anderson's previews and analyses of each Chase race, go SI.com/racing
"Someone is bound to get hot and go on a roll in the Chase," says Stewart. "The question is, Who will it be?"
"You can't win the Chase at New Hampshire," says Biffle of the opening race, "but you sure can lose it there."
"The difference between Kurt and Jimmie," says Osborne, "is that Kurt is a bit more of a hard charger."
Don't Count Him Out
After four straight titles, Jimmie Johnson appears vulnerable—but he won't go down without a fight
Nearly every time a microphone has been thrust in front of Jimmie Johnson over the past two months, the reigning Sprint Cup champion has been asked this question: What's wrong? For the first time since 2006, when he won the first of his four straight titles, Johnson enters the Chase in a slump. In his last nine races, his average finish has been 18.8. Over that stretch he has crashed, made uncharacteristic mistakes behind the wheel and just been slow some weekends—hardly what Johnson typically did in August and September of his championship years.
"We're certainly not as confident as we've been in years past, but we're not in panic mode," says Johnson, who finished the regular season fifth in the standings. "Our strongest tracks are in the Chase. I still believe we'll be ready to go when it actually counts."
Johnson's struggles can be traced to late March. He'd won three of the season's first five races and appeared ready to cruise to the regular-season points title. But then NASCAR replaced the rear wing on its race cars with the more traditional-looking spoiler, which radically altered the aerodynamics of the cars and, therefore, their handling characteristics. Since the debut of the spoiler, Johnson has had only two wins in 21 races.
"It's pretty clear that we weren't as prepared for the spoiler as some of the other teams," says Rick Hendrick, the owner of Johnson's number 48 team, noting that the balance of Johnson's Chevy has been a tick off for much of the season. "We've felt a sense of urgency for some time now to figure things out with the spoiler. I think we have. I'm actually pretty confident going into Loudon [New Hampshire, site of Sunday's Chase opener]."
Johnson's most glaring weakness during the regular season was his performance on intermediate tracks, which range in length from 1.5 to two miles. In Chases past, these have been the 48 team's bread-and-butter venues. On the five intermediate tracks in the Chase last season, for instance, Johnson had two wins and four top 10s. How did he fare at these tracks this summer? He finished 25th at Chicagoland on July 10 and 12th at Michigan on Aug. 15.
But it appears that Johnson's woes on the intermediates may be coming to an end, because after the second-to-last race of the regular season, at the 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sept. 5, there he was on pit road smiling as if he'd just solved the biggest riddle of his life. He'd finished third, sending a clear message to the rest of the garage: The champ is getting up to speed.
"You can't stay on top forever," Johnson says, "but damn it, we're sure as hell going to try."
The Chase Is On
Who'll be up, who'll be down—and who'll be on top—after Homestead
1. Kurt Busch 10TH* WINS: 2 TOP 10s: 15
Now in his prime, the '04 champ has the talent, the team and the experience to dethrone Jimmie Johnson.
2. Jimmie Johnson 5TH WINS: 5 TOP 10s: 14
Though JJ has faltered in the last two months, don't overlook the four-time champ. His best tracks fall in the Chase.
3. Kevin Harvick 1ST WINS: 3 TOP 10s: 17
Under the old points system, Harvick would cruise to the Cup; under the new, he'll labor, as the Chase tracks aren't his best.
4. Carl Edwards 4TH WINS: 0 TOP 10s: 14
Edwards's specialty is intermediate-length tracks, and five of the 10 Chase races take place at such venues.
5. Tony Stewart 6TH WINS: 1 TOP 10s: 14
Over the last 13 races the two-time champ has outscored all other drivers. Recent history, though, suggests he'll fade.
6. Greg Biffle 12TH WINS: 1 TOP 10s: 14
Biffle seemed to be peaking until a 32nd at Richmond. Now, his woes on short and plate tracks will keep him from his first title.
7. Denny Hamlin 9TH WINS: 6 TOP 10s: 11
Hamlin traditionally finishes the season strong. If he starts the Chase with top fives at New Hampshire and Dover, watch out.
8. Jeff Gordon 3RD WINS: 0 TOP 10s: 13
His inability to win races or consistently lead laps will keep him from taking a fifth Cup. Are his best days behind him?
9. Kyle Busch 2ND WINS: 3 TOP 10s: 14
A win-or-wreck driver, Busch is a wild card. If he goes on a tear—and he's capable of that—he could be the driver to beat.
10. Jeff Burton 7TH WINS: 0 TOP 10s: 13
This savvy veteran is better than anyone else in NASCAR at getting more out of less, but he doesn't have the raw speed.
11. Matt Kenseth 8TH WINS: 0 TOP 10s: 10
The most mistake-free driver in NASCAR over the last decade will sneak into contention only if the leaders falter.
12. Clint Bowyer 11TH WINS: 0 TOP 10s: 14
Bowyer is at least a year away from contending, but don't be surprised if he reaches Victory Lane at least once.
* Points finish in regular season
Photograph by GREG NELSON
FULL SPEED AHEAD Busch's blend of car control, aggressiveness and experience is the ideal recipe for a Chase charge.
TOM WHITMORE/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
TEAM TIME With no margin for error over the final 10 races, Busch's crew will put a premium on preparation and precision.
CHIEF ASSET Addington (right), who won 12 races with Kyle Busch, has brought Kurt (left) invaluable experience.
TAKE FIVE? Struggles with the new spoiler on intermediate tracks dogged the 48 team, but Johnson may have turned the corner.
MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
SAM GREENWOOD/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
JOHN HARRELSON/GETTY IMAGES
CLAY PATRICK MCBRIDE
REINHOLD MATAY/AP (CARS)