Imagine you have a boss who, from time to time, unleashes his temper at you. He yells. He curses. He tells you that the final product of your work -- your very, very hard work, mind you -- is complete garbage. He then even tells you it's a joke, really, just how incompetent you are.
Then imagine, despite these R-rated rants, despite the verbal abuse, you still admire your boss, respect him like you respect no one else in your business. In fact, you'd do anything for him, because, well, you think he's the most gifted person in your field. Sure, you don't necessarily look forward to the tongue-lashings, but in the end you intuitively know that it's your boss' intensity that makes your entire business so successful.
Imagine all of this, and then you'll begin to understand what is perhaps the most unique relationship in all of NASCAR: the one Kurt Busch has with his crew guys. Earlier this spring at Richmond (Va.) International Speedway, Busch's temper exploded as he struggled on the track. "We look like a monkey [expletive] a football," he yelled from behind the wheel over the radio. "The [expletive] Penske [cars] are a [expletive] joke. [Expletive] everybody."
Yet I've spent a lot of time with Busch's crew over the last year, and no one on the No. 22 team -- not even just for "background" purposes -- will say a bad word about their driver. "Kurt is a racer, pure and simple, and all he cares about is winning," says one crew member. "His intensity fires us up. All of us on this team are hardcore racers just like Kurt. With Kurt, you can't take it personal, because he doesn't mean it as personal. He just wants to win as badly as anyone in this sport. I promise you that is true."
Shortly after Busch's outburst at Richmond, the performance of the No. 22 team improved dramatically. After finishing fourth at Charlotte on May 29, Busch had the dominant car in the field the following week at Kansas, where he won the pole and led a race-high 152 laps. He wound up finishing ninth because the event devolved into a game of fuel-mileage, but then Busch backed up that strong run with another impressive race last Sunday at Pocono, where he also won the pole and then finished second. Currently sixth in the standings, Busch has scored more points over the last three races than any other driver in the top-10.
On Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, where Busch finished third last June after starting from the pole, he'll be piloting the same ultra-fast car he drove at Kansas. He's my pick to take the checkers. And if he does win his first race of 2011, you can go back to a certain expletive-laced tirade as the primary reason.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching in the Irish Hills when the green flag drops on Sunday afternoon.
1. Carl Edwards
You always have to like the chances of the Roush-Fenway drivers at Michigan, which is about an hour's drive from Livonia, Mich., where Roush Industries, the headquarters of team owner Jack Roush, is based. The Roush Fords have owned this track, winning more races (11) and registering more top-5s (49) than any other team.
The top Roush driver on Sunday likely will be Edwards, who leads the point standings. His best tracks have always been the flat, intermediate-length venues like Michigan. In fact, Edwards' career average finish at Michigan of 6.7 is his second best on the Cup schedule, trailing only his performance at Homestead (5.7). In 13 career starts at Michigan, Edwards has two career wins and a hard-to-believe eight top-5 finishes.
2. Jimmie Johnson
The five-time defending champ is heating up with the summer temperatures, which isn't his normal M.O. Now second in the standings, Johnson came in fourth last week at Pocono and trails Edwards by only six points, the closest he's been to the points lead since the season started in February.
I've written this several times in recent weeks, but the battle between Johnson and Edwards on Sunday likely will be a microcosm of what to expect over the 10 weeks of the Chase. Johnson finished sixth in this race last year.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick already has a series-high three wins this season, which means he's essentially locked into the Chase under the new qualifying format. This also means he can take chances on the track when others can't. And since Michigan is often decided on fuel mileage, you can expect Harvick to roll the dice on Sunday and aggressively try to stretch his final fuel run longer than anyone else.
Harvick's risk-taking has worked for him in the past at Michigan. He won here last August after gambling and not pitting under caution late with the leaders, hoping that his old tires could hold up and carry him to Victory Lane, which they did.
4. David Ragan
Ragan is my long shot to watch. Though he's never won a race in his five seasons on the Cup circuit, Ragan appears poised for a breakthrough. He's 16th in the standings and has four finishes of eighth or better in 14 races.
Why will he have a chance at Michigan? One, he drives for Roush (see above). And two, he's led laps here in four of the last six races.