The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway annually marks the unofficial midway point of the Sprint Cup regular season. On Sunday night in Charlotte, Kevin Harvick lived up to his nickname of the Closer, pulling away from longtime leader Kasey Kahne in the final 11 laps of a wild race to win NASCAR's longest event (600 miles). Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson got caught up in a late-race wreck and finished well back, in 22nd place. Despite that atypical result, the driver of the number 48 Chevy occupies a far more prestigious spot in SI's Midseason NASCAR Awards.
Johnson hasn't actually won a Sprint Cup title since 2010—and for the driver known as Five-Time (for his fistful of championships from '06 through '10), that constitutes a slump. But through the first dozen races of this season no driver has been as consistently fast as Johnson—and it hasn't even been close.
Winner of two races so far in 2013, Johnson leads all drivers in top five finishes (six), top 10s (eight) and average finishing position (8.0). He holds a 32-point lead over the second-place driver in the standings, Carl Edwards, which means Johnson could practically sit out an entire race and still maintain the points lead.
Through the first three months of the season it's clear that Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, have adapted more quickly to the newly designed car that NASCAR debuted this year—the Gen 6—than any other duo in the garage. There is precedent for this. The last time NASCAR unveiled a new car, the winged Car of Tomorrow in 2007, Johnson sailed to the championship. He appears now like a driver ready to fill out a six-pack of titles. Says Johnson, "I still feel like there's a lot left I can do in this sport."
Best Crew Chief
The chemistry between driver and crew chief is one of the great X factors in NASCAR. It typically takes years to develop, but in the case of Matt Kenseth and Ratcliff, all the elements were there for an instant reaction as soon as they started working together in the off-season.
Since joining Ratcliff at Joe Gibbs Racing after 13 years at Roush Fenway Racing, Kenseth has been having his finest season since he won the title in 2003. He has three wins and has led the most laps in three of the last five races (with a little luck, he and Ratcliff could have taken four straight checkered flags earlier this spring). "Jason and I had a special bond right away," says Kenseth, who is third in the standings. "I couldn't feel much better about our year."
Ratcliff was hit with a one-race suspension and a $200,000 fine for an illegal engine part that NASCAR discovered in Kenseth's number 20 Toyota following his win at Kansas Speedway in April, but Toyota Racing Development, which supplies engines to JGR, accepted blame. What happened when Ratcliff was away from the track during his suspension? Communicating with his crew from his home in North Carolina, he still guided Kenseth to Victory Lane on May 11 at Darlington, Kenseth's first career victory at the historic track.
Most Surprising Driver
Before this season Almirola, 29, had never finished higher than 20th in the final standings. But through a dozen races in 2013, Almirola has been a lead-pack driver. Driving the number 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, he already has as many top 10s (four) as he had all of last year and is 12th in the standings. Amirola has led only one lap—which means he remains the longest of shots to win the championship—but he is well positioned to qualify for his first Chase.
Most Disappointing Driver
Almost since the first lap of the season-opening Daytona 500, Smoke has been fuming about the uneven balance of his number 14 Chevy, insisting that he feels as if he's on the verge of losing control in every corner. As a result, the three-time champion has been as far off the pace this season as he's ever been in his 15 years on the Cup circuit. Stewart is 20th in the standings (his previous worst finish was 11th in '06), and he's had just two top 10s thus far in '13—a year after he had 12 top fives. Stewart traditionally heats up in the summer months, but this time his season may already have gone up in smoke.
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
Danica Patrick crashed out of Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 when she was caught up in an accident started by driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., her boyfriend.
NELL REDMOND/AP (PATRICK)
FRED VUICH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CAR)
JOY OF SIX? Johnson has the 48 car in a familiar spot atop the standings and appears ready to add to his five titles.
TOM PENNINGTON/NASCAR/GETTY IMAGES (JOHNSON)
JOHN HARRELSON/NASCAR/GETTY IMAGES (RATCLIFF)
RAY CARLIN/ICON SMI (ALMIROLA)
WALTER G. ARCE/CAL SPORT MEDIA (STEWART)