Brant James
Wednesday September 10th, 2008

The three combatants toddled into the media center of Richmond International Raceway on Friday, plopped behind a smallish table and instinctively checked to see if their microphones were live.

Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson. The top three drivers in the Sprint Cup standings were clad in street clothes and relaxed, already secure in their positions for the upcoming Chase for the Championship and sufficiently idled-down knowing that Tropical Storm Hanna was about to postpone the final race of the regular season the next evening.

Busch was disarmed and smiling, offering a rare pinhole into the young man behind the nefarious façade when he sheepishly was forced to admit he didn't know the definition of the word 'crescendo.'

Edwards was animated and confident, in keeping with a six-week burst in which he had won three times -- once moving Busch out of the way late in the race to win at Bristol -- and made himself very much a championship contender.

Johnson was placid, witty. It was as if knew something they didn't. He did, of course. He knew how to win a Sprint Cup championship. He'd done it the past two seasons, after all. He'd come from farther back with less time. These boys were good, but they weren't Chase-good yet. Of course, he didn't say any of that. He might not have even been thinking it. But he should have been.

Ten races remain to settle the Sprint Cup championship. Busch was the undisputed master of the regular season with eight victories. Pre-Chase, this thing might be over. But it's not. His 20-point lead over Edwards and 40 over Johnson is the difference of a bobble, a bad pit call, a few positions in a race.

Any one of the 12 Chase-eligibles could raise the trophy when the season concludes at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but if it is anyone but those three men on the stage at Richmond, it would be a surprise. Each has a case to believe it will be his.

The 23-year-old younger brother of 2004 series champion Kurt Busch is in many ways the refreshing new character NASCAR so craves. He's outspoken, brash, punkish if your demographic skews older, and maddening to detractors in that he backs up everything he says with the type of race-changing talent that comes along so rarely.

Expelled from one of the best rides in racing when he was replaced at Hendrick Motorsports with Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season, he has competed all season like a driver scorned, and his phenomenal abilities have allowed him to channel that aggression into winning -- a lot -- instead of running off the rails. He leads the Sprint Cup series with eight wins, added seven in the Nationwide Series and three more in trucks.

A 10-race sprint to the finish would seemingly be the easiest part, but a 208-point lead was erased when points were reset for the Chase and one of the attributes that makes him special -- unmitigated brazenness -- could make him vulnerable when every move, every point is exponentially more important. Busch entered the Chase in fourth in 2006, but finished 38th at New Hampshire and 40th at Dover with an engine issue and sulked to a 10th-place finish in the standings. He started the Chase third last season, but sank to fifth after being involved in a major crash at Talladega.

For all the things Busch has accomplished in a relative blink of a high-level stock car career so far, he lacks something Edwards has already attained: a championship. Certainly, Edwards' blitz to the 2007 Nationwide Series title was not as pressurized as a Chase, but the fact that he was so dominant while moonlighting from his Sunday job -- finishing ninth in the Cup series -- is impressive.

Edwards also finished third in 2005 in his first full season, demonstrating the kind of crushing consistency that is required to at least stay viable. He recorded eight top-10s during that Chase, winning consecutively at Atlanta and Texas to tighten the screws on eventual champion Tony Stewart and finished just 35 points back.

Three of his six wins in 2008 have come in the last six races -- similarly, he won three of the first seven races of the season -- and his penchant for streaky racing make him a major threat, especially in the early weeks of the Chase.

Former teammate Busch teammate Jeff Gordon said that Edwards is more than ready to win a first Cup title.

"I think Kyle has the ability to go really hard, really fast, and he's made big improvements, in my opinion, this year over last year," he said. "Last year when he drove for [Hendrick Motorsports], there wasn't a single practice that they didn't have to knock out the right side on the car. This year it seems to be like every fifth race that happens.

"So he's still doing it a little bit, which isn't a bad thing he's pushing that hard; that's why he runs fast and they've won a bunch of races, so he's gotten more comfortable. He's close. He's as good as anybody out there right now. I'd certainly put him at the top or in the top three or four guys who really has a shot this championship or the best shot at it. But I would put Carl ahead of him as far as being ready experience-wise, and I'd put Jimmie ahead of both of those guys with just his experience of winning the last two."

No driver has won more Sprint Cup races (37) since Jimmie Johnson's Sprint Cup rookie season in 2002. He's claimed 31 wins since 2004 -- when his emotional march to the finish followed a Hendrick team plane crash that killed 10 -- missing the championship by eight points. Had he gained one more spot that final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (he finished second), he might have changed the way Kurt Busch had to drive and he could be chasing his fourth title in five years.

Johnson's consecutive wins this season -- he entered the Chase the same way last season -- was an unsettling harbinger to the rest of the Chase field. Even Busch admitted that. Standing near the podium where Johnson took questions following his win at Richmond on Sunday, Busch mouthed 'yes,' when Johnson was asked if he considered himself the favorite. Busch later said he was being sarcastic, but he knows Johnson has ruled the Chase, winning a series-best 11 of 40 Chase events.

Drivers seem to win championships in windows, when talent, team, ambition and circumstance align, and Johnson's appears wide open still, giving him the chance to become just the second driver to win three consecutive titles at NASCAR's top level, coincidently 30 years after Cale Yarborough.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. validated his decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Hendrick Motorsports by qualifying for his third Chase for the Championship and entering the playoffs seeded fourth. Still, he could hardly enter the Chase more conspicuously.

Gordon is a four-time champion and led the standings with three races remaining last season, only to have Hendrick teammate Johnson wrest away the title by winning four of the last five races and better him by 77 points. Even with Gordon 38 years old, it's odd to think that might have been his last, best chance for a championship. But he's living in the Jimmie Johnson Era, is winless and has shown few glimmers of title aptitude this season.

Tony Stewart, a two-time series champion, could be ready for one final fling with the band as he prepares to leave Joe Gibbs Racing to drive for his own team next season. Or he could be ready to disintegrate. It sounded more the latter on Sunday at Richmond. Matt Kenseth, the last to win a championship under the old points system in 2003, is the only man besides Johnson to qualify for all five Chases, but at eighth in points and unhappy with his team, he's not sounding very optimistic, saying this week, "I'm glad I'm in, but if we operate like this, we won't do anything in here anyway."

But with Busch, Edwards and Johnson ahead of him, it might not matter anyway.

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