Just two weeks into the annual championship hunt, there is already a line in the sand between three contenders and the rest of the Chase field. While it’s always possible that someone else will reel off a spectacular run, fighting back against the favorites, it’s going to be a hard road to get past Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch to win this thing. One of them, maybe… but all three form a formidable obstacle.
The triumvirate at the top has one thing in common: a relentless desire to win. All three are absolute bulldogs on the track, though they have different driving styles. Kenseth is a stalker, and while he’s shown he can dominate on any given day, his specialty is to race cleanly and quietly all day long, then just always somehow be there at the end. It’s how he won his first Cup title, in 2003 and those sneak attacks are still often a surprise to everyone watching. Just where did he come from?
Johnson is just smooth. He can make driving a car for three hours, at 200 miles an hour look easy. He knows how to points race, but he also knows how to win. Once Johnson gets to the front, he is a bulldog; near impossible to pass, racing as hard as anyone. As clean a race car driver as you’ll see, he’s also aggressive — just not in the “move over or I’ll wreck you” sense. Johnson’s best asset, though might be his memory. He files every detail about every track for future use, and that helps him relate adjustments towards his team. Johnson is one of the best communicators out there; that’s part of his skill.
Busch can be aggressive in the “move or I’ll wreck you” sense, but he’s not simply a wrecking ball on wheels. Busch has raw talent, and a lot of it. If Kenseth is the most calculating in this group and Johnson the best pure driver, Busch might be the most innately talented. He’s as relentless as the other two, and perhaps a touch less patient, which has gotten him into trouble in the past. If the three were in high school, Kenseth would be the only-slightly-nerdy valedictorian, Johnson the ultra-cool athlete, and Busch the bad boy.
And that’s where they differ. For all the similarities in talent, the three drivers are like the three corners of an equilateral triangle — as far apart as can be while being part of the whole shape. We’ve all seen the commercial from a few years back where Matt Kenseth turns out to be a robot, and while he might drive with a robot-like consistency — he is the most consistent of these three — he’s also a quick wit with a sarcastic streak. In fact, his media availability is often one of the most entertaining of the weekend. He’s reserved, yes, but he’s not boring. Kenseth plays it straight for the most part, doing and saying the right things for his sponsor, but he’s no robot. He just has fun making you think he might be one.
Johnson is the most reserved of the group, and if all race fans see of him is his pre- or post-race interviews, it’s easy to see why some people think he’s bland. He’s not that way, really, but Five-Time is definitely self-conscious to a fault. He worries about saying the wrong thing, so he always says the right thing… and to some, that’s tiresome. Johnson is very, very genuine and is truly a nice person, but he’s been taught to come across in a way that makes him seem a bit too corporate at times. That stems more from a deep-seeded fear of losing his sponsor, or his ride, which he doesn’t need to worry about. Ironically, it’s a bit of a shame, because the real Johnson is very likeable in a boy-next-door kind of way. But that side of him is seldom seen.
Busch, unlike Kenseth or Johnson, doesn’t really care what most people think of him. He doesn’t seem to care if you like him or not, and to many fans, that’s refreshing. To others, Busch comes across as petulant and spoiled, so he’s polarizing, the subject of discussion and debate amongst fans. And Busch isn’t clueless. He figures any publicity is good publicity (in general, he’s not wrong) and makes no apologies for anything, ever. That’s a complete 180 from either Kenseth or Johnson, who both have tempers, make no mistake, but who tend to let cooler heads prevail most of the time.
This three-way battle for the championship is good for the sport and, should it come down to the wire this way, could go a long way to erase some of the shame that the Chase started with. Amongst these three drivers, there’s truly something for everyone. Most fans will find a reason to pull for one of them if they look hard enough. Whether it’s Kenseth’s quick wit and on-track stealth, Johnson’s genuineness and skill, or Busch’s brashness and raw talent, all three have something to make them stand out. If NASCAR wants to put a positive spin on this already tainted Chase, they can surely find it in this three-man breakaway.
The trio of rivals should be a marketing point for NASCAR and ESPN — find creative and compelling ways to showcase each of them (as well as anyone who steps up to challenge in the coming weeks) so that fans will have a reason to watch them battle it out down the stretch. They’ll then have something positive to take away from the 2013 Chase, instead of all the negative news entering into it. NASCAR needs that, and the fans need that, too.
Three very different drivers sit this Friday, atop the Chase; they have one goal which each doggedly pursues but only one can reach. As much as there is to worry about in NASCAR recently, this is one battle fans can get behind in one way or another. If the sport wants to give fans a reason to keep the faith, they have one in the trio of Kenseth, Johnson, and Busch. And that reason is coming at the perfect time… just when the sport needs it most. If it’s down to three, it’s three of the best.
Connect with Amy!
Contact Amy Henderson
©2000 - 2008 Amy Henderson and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!