NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Is There a 48 in Kyle Busch’s Mirror?

Kyle Busch has dominated the Sprint Cup landscape for much of the season. It’s a championship caliber year for Busch, with seven wins, 12 top-five finishes and 13 top 10s in 20 races. He’s on par with great seasons like Jeff Gordon’s 1997 campaign. Busch is certainly on top of the Sprint Cup world.

However, thanks to the Chase, NASCAR’s answer to the NFL playoffs and possibly one of the worst ideas in professional sports except for maybe the designated hitter, Busch’s lead will be virtually erased in just five weeks. The 253-point lead Busch enjoys now will be reduced to just 50. Fair or not, the current system is going to send some of the series’ top talent gunning for Busch this fall.

The picture of Busch’s competition became clearer at Indianapolis. At the moment, three drivers stand to enter the Chase tied for second spot – Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards and with his Indy win, Jimmie Johnson. Kahne’s season has been spotty at best – he has 10 top-10 finishes, but Kahne has tended to either win or be off the radar. He could make a run at the title, but he’ll probably be among the least of Busch’s worries.

Edwards is another story – he’s been strong for most of the season. He has three wins to Kahne’s and Johnson’s two – but had the 10-point bonus for one of them stripped after an oil cover was left loose on the car during one of his victories. The win stood, but Edwards lost points that would have inched him closer in the Chase. Edwards’s team was one of the first to figure out the Car of Tomorrow on the intermediate tracks, and these tracks make up half of the stops in the Chase. He’s also won at Pocono and California before, both of which could toss a few bonus points his way before it starts. Edwards is sure to be breathing down Busch’s neck come Loudon, and it would serve Busch well to be aware of Edwards’ presence.

But it was out of the tire dust at Indianapolis that rose the one who may well be Busch’s most serious competition for the title – reigning two-time champion Johnson. Johnson has hardly made a peep all season. His spectacular Chase run in 2007 cost his team dearly – by the estimate of crew chief Chad Knaus, the team entered 2008 five months behind most of the competition. They struggled early, and sit fourth in points behind Busch. The cars didn’t handle right, and when they did, luck didn’t fall their way. Until Indy.

And five months are up.

Not coincidentally, because Knaus may well be the most brilliant wrench in the Cup garage, at the end of 20 weeks – five months – Johnson dominated Indy. Tire snafu aside, Johnson had the best car from the second the teams unloaded and never looked back. At one point, Johnson drove by Busch – with Busch’s slam and win at Chicago no doubt still stinging – like he was standing still, with two of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates in tow.

Hendrick insiders have said that the second half of the season will look vastly different for Johnson and his teammates, who have struggled with the front-end geometry of the new car. Johnson had the best car for much of the first Pocono race but was derailed by a rare mistake in pit strategy. Don’t expect the same mistake this week. And don’t expect many of the mistakes the team made earlier this year. Johnson is fourth in points now, but a year ago he was ninth after Indy, and it didn’t matter. Johnson’s four wins in the Chase gave him the title. Yes, it was because of the Chase. The Chase is ill-conceived, but it is also the way the points work today, and Johnson knows how to play the system better than anyone.

It could make for quite the rivalry. Busch, resident bad boy, is looking to become the youngest Cup champion. Busch is pushy, brash, and fearless. And that’s just on the track. Off it – well, he’s… colorful. Busch is going for his first title and he’s doing it, at least in part, to stick it to the owner who dropped him for Dale Earnhardt Jr. last year.

Johnson, the nice guy, is looking to win his third title. His third in a row, which would tie the Cup record for consecutive titles. Johnson is smooth, clean and fearless. Off the track he’s criticized for exactly the opposite reason as Busch – being too polite. Johnson is looking at the championship at least in part as the opportunity to match the record set by his boyhood hero, Cale Yarborough.

Should it come to these two in the Chase, it’s the perfect rivalry. The good guy and the insolent kid. The white hat against the black. Yarborough and Waltrip; Gordon and Earnhardt back in the day – rivalries that were hard-fought and victories that were hard-won.

Should it come down to these two, expect neither to give an inch, though Busch is certainly more aggressive than Johnson. But don’t mistake that for wanting it more. Johnson wants it just as bad, because deep down he’s still the scared kid who wonders if his job will still be there next week. Johnson, if he hits a hot streak is easily a match for Busch when it’s all on the line.

Busch had better adjust his rearview mirror carefully.

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