During his five-year run as Cup champion, Jimmie Johnson has prided himself on getting along with his peers. If he commits a mistake on the track and triggers a wreck, he's always been quick with an apology to the driver whose day he ruined. Because Johnson has been virtually everybody's best buddy, rival drivers have tended to give JJ room on track and yield to him when he has a faster car. In fact, Johnson's good-guy personality—which is as genuine in the garage as it appears in commercials—has been an important (and underappreciated) x-factor in his title string.
But this season has been different. There was Johnson two weeks ago at Pocono, standing on pit road moments after he and Kurt Busch slammed into each other on the final lap and calling Busch a "big crybaby" and a "smart ass." Then there was Johnson last Friday in the media center at Watkins Glen, still bashing Busch, saying, "There's no love lost between the two of us.... I'm not going to let him run his mouth." Yet Busch did run his mouth the next day, telling every camera and notepad, "If I'm in [Jimmie's] head, then he's got to worry about us [all] through the Chase."
Make no mistake. The Johnson-Busch feud will continue through the 10-race playoff (which opens on Sept. 18) for two reasons: Both men are strong title contenders (and thus will be spending plenty of time in close proximity on the track); and, more significant, they don't like each other. What will happen next between Five-Time (Johnson, currently third in points) and One-Time (Busch, the 2004 Cup champ, currently sixth) has turned into one of the most compelling subplots of the season.
"I've been spun out and wrecked [by Jimmie] a few times," says Busch. "And we both know that we look at each other very sternly."
The animosity between the drivers can be traced to the Cup race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., in 2009. With the two dueling in the closing laps, the nose of Johnson's Chevy clipped the right rear of Busch's Dodge, sending Busch spinning. In March 2010, after one of what would be several on-track incidents that year, Busch uttered a statement that has become his rallying cry. Moments after Johnson won at Bristol and Busch finished third, Busch climbed from his car saying, "Anybody but the 48!" It was Busch's commitment to that mandate that led to the fireworks at Pocono on Aug. 7. When Johnson tried to pass Busch on the final lap, Busch banged into the side of Johnson's Chevy, thwarting his momentum and preventing him from getting by. Johnson wasn't pleased, but Busch reveled in what he called "racing hard."
On Monday, in the rain-delayed Cup race at Watkins Glen, Johnson and Busch steered clear of each other as Marcos Ambrose became the fifth first-time winner of the season in a wreck-filled race. But, like an engine that's been revving too high for too long, the Johnson-Busch feud looks like it's ready to blow—and soon. Then the question will be: Could it cost Johnson a sixth straight title?
With four races left in the regular season, here are the four top contenders for the wild-card spots in the Chase. (Along with the top 10 in points, the two drivers between 11th and 20th with the most wins make the playoff field.)
Brad Keselowski14th in points, two victories
If Keselowski (below) can simply avoid a DNF over the next month, he'll be in the Chase.
Denny Hamlin12th, one win
As long as Menard or Ragan doesn't win again, Hamlin should be in, even if he doesn't win another race.
Paul Menard15th, one win
Menard's only hope is to take another checkered flag. His best shot? On Aug. 27 at Bristol.
David Ragan23rd, one win
One spot behind Marcos Ambrose, Ragan should be strong on Sunday at Michigan, where he's led laps in four of his last seven starts.
MATTHEW O'HAREN/ICON SMI (CARS)
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT Johnson (Lowe's car and above, left) and Busch (Pennzoil and above, right) figure to keep trading paint and pointed words.
JOHN HARRELSON/GETTY IMAGES (JOHNSON)
[See caption above]
EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR (BUSCH)
[See caption above]
RUSS HAMILTON SR./AP (KESELOWSKI)