Last Thursday evening the traveling city of NASCAR descended upon Kansas Speedway for the 30th of the 36 race weekends on the Sprint Cup schedule. Haulers pulled into the garage and soon unloaded the race cars. Private jets carrying the drivers landed at a nearby airport. Million-dollar motor coaches (the drivers' on-track homes) parked in the infield. And on Friday morning vans delivered the crews, ready to get their fingers dirty during another 72 hours of searching for speed. From February to November, at tracks from the Carolinas to California, this is how the show rolls on in NASCAR.
Yet something was very different last weekend at the track in Kansas City, Kans. Engines and pulses raced higher than in recent years. The focus of the 170,000 spectators over the three days was not on the infield partying (even the beer-guzzling diehards admitted that) or on the corporate suite promotions. It was squarely on the track. NASCAR has a wide-open, down-to-the-wire pennant race going on, the kind of championship showdown that chairman Brian France has been dreaming of since he implemented the Chase format in 2004. Heading into Kansas, the fourth of the 10 playoff races, the first nine drivers in the championship hunt—heavyweights all—were within 19 points, which translates into only 19 positions on the track. Yes, in the world of NASCAR, this is as riveting as it gets.
Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending Cup champion, began the weekend in fifth place, 13 points behind co-leaders Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards, and only nine behind former champions Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, who were tied for third. One point behind Johnson, sixth place was shared by another former champ, Matt Kenseth, and the surprise of the season, Brad Keselowski. One more point back was Kyle Busch, and another four, Jeff Gordon. In this 190-mph traffic jam every contender felt the pressure—at Kansas, R-rated words between drivers and crew chiefs flew over the car radios all weekend—but the best way to understand what it means to race for the title this year is to experience it along with Mr. Five-Time himself. For three days leading up to the checkered flag at Kansas, SI shadowed Johnson and the number 48 team, observing the inner workings of a dynasty that is the motor sports equivalent of the Yankees in the '50s or the Celtics in the '60s. This is Johnson's most challenging Chase so far, and last weekend showed why.
FRIDAY: 10:07 A.M.START IT UP
The first Cup practice at the 1.5-mile oval was 83 minutes away, and here was Johnson, stepping out of his motor coach in the rising prairie sun. He hopped on the back of a golf cart and rode into the garage, where, for the first time at Kansas, he saw his gleaming number 48 Chevy parked in stall number 1. To Johnson, indeed to everyone on his race team, that number 48 Chevy has been a thing of beauty for the last five years. "People wrote us off just two weeks ago, but man, we are coming on," Johnson said, noting that after he banged into Kyle Busch and finished 18th in the Chase's second race, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sept. 25, he was 10th in the standings, his career low in the Chase. "This is our time of the year, and I just can't wait to get out there and flex some muscle."
FRIDAY: 10:27 A.M."TOO TIGHT"
Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, stood inside the number 48 hauler, his thick three-ring binder in his hand. Knaus and Johnson entered Kansas knowing they had to make a statement. "I feel good about where we are," Knaus said. "We have a great string of tracks coming up for us. I'd be fine with a top 10 finish on Sunday, but we're really going for a top five." One reason Knaus was so confident: Johnson would be piloting the same car that he drove in the Chase opener, at Chicagoland Speedway (the 1.5-mile sister track of Kansas, with similar features), where he led 39 of the race's 267 laps before running out of gas on the final circuit and finishing 10th. That was the team's first—and decidedly uncharacteristic—mistake of the postseason.
As the first practice of the weekend began, Knaus and Johnson climbed to the top of the Lowe's Chevy hauler and lazily watched every other car purr onto the track. This was a message to the garage: The champs were acting as if they had no concerns about their car. But then, seven minutes into practice, Johnson slid behind the wheel, turned one lap and immediately sensed a problem. "Too tight," he said over the radio, meaning that the front tires were sliding up the track through the turns, forcing Johnson to ease off the gas. Twelve minutes into practice he was only 11th on the speed chart. After making a series of adjustments to the 48 Chevy in the garage, Johnson rolled back onto the track, but the tightness worsened. At the end of practice he was 18th on the speed chart, prompting Knaus to shake his head as he climbed down from the top of the hauler. Qualifying was next.
FRIDAY: 4:55 P.M.STARTING BEHIND
Knaus's worst fear was realized: During Johnson's qualifying lap the 48 was so unbalanced that he nearly lost control in Turn 4. He wound up qualifying 19th, second worst of all the Chase drivers. Yet Johnson wasn't overly concerned. He has struggled in qualifying all season—his average starting spot is 13.7, his lowest since his rookie year, 2002—but has flourished in race trim, when the setup is geared to long green-flag runs, not the one-lap sprint of qualifying. "We've made it hard on ourselves," Johnson admitted.
After spending 15 minutes filling out his qualifying report—describing in detail how the car felt to him—Johnson headed to a local YMCA for a seven-mile, stress-relieving run. He finished the night over a sushi dinner at a nearby restaurant with Dale Earnhardt Jr. At the end of his meal, Johnson cracked open a fortune cookie. It read YOU WILL BE REWARDED FOR YOUR EFFORTS WITHIN A MONTH. "Awesome," he told his dinner companion.
SATURDAY: 10:12 A.M.MAKING IT RIGHT
Riding in the back of an SUV outside the track, Johnson gazed up at the grandstands along the frontstretch, towering and bright in the morning sun. The second-to-last practice was a little more than an hour away, and he knew it could be one of the most important sessions of the season. If he and Knaus didn't show dramatic improvement from yesterday, the 48 team could be in for a long, losing Sunday. "It's so hard to pass [other cars] this year simply because of how the cars are built," Johnson said. "On a green-flag run sometimes I'll only be able to pick off two or three guys. Chad and I spent a lot of time last night trying to figure out what to do."
Five minutes before practice, Johnson was in the cockpit of his race car, his eyes wide and intense. Knaus was atop the hauler, his face buried in his notebook. Unlike in the first practice, Johnson was the first driver to pull out of the garage, underscoring his sense of urgency.
He thundered onto the track and, with every other crew chief watching the 48 closely, immediately powered through the turns with eye-popping speed. For the first time all weekend, he felt comfortable behind the wheel; the changes to the car ordered by Knaus had hit the jackpot. On his first lap Mr. Five-Time soared to No. 2 on the speed chart, trailing only Harvick. "Plenty of stability and comfort," Johnson said over the radio, the relief in his voice obvious.
This was critical, because Johnson felt as if the balance of his Chevy had been off all day Friday. But now Knaus and his driver, after their lengthy debriefing session Friday night, appeared to have found a near-perfect setup. During the 45-minute practice session, Johnson turned 44 laps—the most of any driver. Afterward he quickly lifted himself out of his seat and, ignoring a crush of autograph seekers in the garage, sprinted 50 yards to the hauler to meet with Knaus. The last practice before the race was only 29 minutes away.
SATURDAY: 12:50 P.M.A SHOW OF SPEED
As Johnson cruised onto the track during the final practice, Knaus gave clear instructions. "Let's pass some guys, bud," he said. "We need to know what it's going to do in traffic."
Johnson stood on the gas. On his first lap he roared to fourth on the speed chart—168.724 mph—and was faster than all the Chase drivers except Kenseth, who posted the third-fastest time overall (168.845 mph). Knaus told Johnson to try the high line, and Johnson began to sail past cars in traffic with relative ease.
SATURDAY: 7:25 P.M.THE NIGHT BEFORE
Sitting in the quiet of his motor coach, Johnson studied his past notes from Kansas. He analyzed how his car handled in previous races, what his fastest lines around the track were at different stages of the races, and what late-lap adjustments gave him the feel—those most magical words to a driver—which allowed him to push the car to its redline limit. He paid especially close attention to the words he had written upon winning the fall 2008 race at Kansas. After digging through this data for nearly an hour, he called Knaus and relayed his thoughts on all these subjects.
SUNDAY: 8:15 A.M.RACE DAY DAWNS
Shortly after awakening in his coach, Johnson picked up his cellphone and dialed the number 48 hauler, where Knaus and a team of engineers—after analyzing Johnson's feedback from Saturday night—had agreed on what changes to implement in the car's final prerace setup. "I feel good about everything," Johnson told his crew chief.
SUNDAY: 9:20 A.M. LAST-MINUTE TWEAKS
Hammer in hand, Knaus pounded away on the inside of the left front tire well. He was trying to preserve the integrity of the aerodynamics of the 48 car. As hundreds of fans recorded it on their mobile devices, Knaus was unsmiling and hurried. These small last-minute adjustments often spell the difference between a top five finish and a title-destroying 20th or worse.
SUNDAY: 1:07 P.M.GO TIME
Knaus poked his head into the cockpit to speak with Johnson on pit road three minutes before the engines were scheduled to fire for Chase race number 4. Johnson nodded as Knaus went over last-minute instructions, such as the team's pit strategy, which Knaus would later concede was daring. Knaus then tapped Johnson's helmet twice with his right hand and stepped away as Johnson flipped the ignition. Amid the chest-thumping rumble, Knaus said over the radio to Johnson and the crew, "We've got a great car... . Everything is lining up for us."
SUNDAY: 1:29 P.M.ON A CHARGE
"Looking good out there, Boss Man," yelled Earl Barban, Johnson's spotter, who was perched with his counterparts from other teams high above the track on top of the grandstands. And Johnson did look good: In only 19 laps he'd passed nine cars and was in ninth place behind the leader, Greg Biffle. Johnson was one of the few drivers who could hug either the bottom or the top of the track through the corners—the place where races are won and lost. When a spinning car triggered the caution lights, Johnson pitted with the leaders. Knaus called for only a two-tire change, while most of the other crew chiefs requested four tires. Johnson emerged from pit road ahead of every other car that pitted, and on Lap 24 he catapulted to first place.
SUNDAY: 1:45 P.M.LOSING GRIP
Kenseth, on four new tires from the previous stop, passed Johnson for the lead on Lap 41. Johnson's older left-side tires were fading and not gripping the track as well as Kenseth's. "You're doing awesome, buddy," Knaus said over the radio, trying to encourage Johnson, who was losing ground to the leader.
SUNDAY: 2:03 P.M.THE PIT PLAY
Knaus's earlier pit call paid off. Johnson, in third place behind Kenseth and non-Chaser Biffle, dived into the pits under the green flag and was given four fresh tires. He was now on the same four-tire pit sequence as every other driver—and no longer buried in traffic. Once back on the track, he quickly vaulted past Kenseth and Biffle to retake the lead on Lap 71. "You are flying," Knaus said.
SUNDAY: 3:20 P.M.CRUISING
Johnson held an 11-second lead over Tony Stewart—a country mile in NASCAR—with 67 laps left. Compared with the rest of the field, this was the fastest car that Johnson had driven in two years.
SUNDAY: 4:18 P.M.TWO TO GO
With two laps left in the race, Gordon blew an engine, prompting the yellow flag to wave. This set up a green-white-checkered finish, a two-lap dash to Victory Lane. Johnson held the lead; Kasey Kahne, who had newer tires, was in second. But Kahne's advantage in rubber didn't matter: Johnson pulled away on the restart the same way he'd been toying with the other 42 drivers all day. He won by more than half a second in what was one of the most dominating race performances of his career. As he streaked across the finish line after leading 197 of the 272 laps, Johnson screamed over the radio, "Let's drink some champagne!"
SUNDAY: 6:09 P.M.SOAKING IT IN
The sun was pink over Kansas Speedway as Johnson lounged outside his motor coach. With the top of his driver's suit unzipped, he cracked open a Bud Light and toasted his win with friends. Then Carl Edwards, dressed in a black T-shirt and shorts, approached. "Damn, you were fast today," Edwards said. "This is getting very interesting, because you tore it up."
Yes, he did. Johnson snapped a 21-race winless streak—the longest of his career—and now he's third in the standings, trailing Edwards, who finished fifth, by four points. (Harvick is second, three points ahead.) What was the secret to Johnson's win? "The changes we made to the car during the weekend meant everything," he said. "I think my stress level is close to an alltime high. This was a great step forward, but we have to keep it going."
Minutes later, Johnson climbed into an SUV and drove off into the twilight, heading to the airport and a flight home to Charlotte. Six races remain in the championship charge that could be the most satisfying of his career—and the most impressive in NASCAR history.