Here's a question I put to several drivers, crewmen, and engineers in the days before the Daytona 500: Which driver in NASCAR does the best job of getting the most out of his equipment?
Is it Jimmie Johnson, because he's captured the last five Cup championships? Or how about Kyle Busch, who seems to win a few races a month in the three series -- Trucks, Nationwide, and Cup -- in which he competes? Or perhaps Carl Edwards, who during preseason testing looked like he was going to have a monster year in 2011 (and, for the record, he will)?
No, no and no. The driver most frequently named has been relatively off the radar for the last few seasons, a driver who is perhaps the most intense competitor in the sport: Kurt Busch. "If you gave Kurt the kind of car that Jimmie Johnson drives each week, I think Kurt would be the one sitting on a bunch of championships right now," one team engineer told me. "If you watch him closely on the track -- and I do -- you'd be amazed at what that guy can do."
Last season, over the course of several days, I did pay close attention to Busch. For a feature than ran in SI, I embedded with Busch's No. 2 team for a weekend at Michigan. While the race didn't turn out rosy for Busch -- he blew an engine early -- he steadily gained speed all weekend during the practice sessions. He climbed the speed chart because his descriptions of what he was sensing in the car, and what he needed to feel more comfortable, were so precise that that he made the job of his crew chief, Steve Addington, fairly easy. "I wouldn't trade Kurt for anyone in the sport," Addington told me. "He's as hard core of a racer as anyone out there."
This Sunday at Bristol, Busch should be at his best. A .533-mile short track, Bristol is one of his favorite tracks on the Cup circuit. He's won here five times and earned more than $2.6 million in the hills of rural Tennessee in his career. More than any other venue in NASCAR, Bristol fosters bumper-car style racing and Busch, who leads the points, excels at shoving cars out of the way in charging to the front. He's my pick to take the checkers on Sunday.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the green flag flies:
1. Carl Edwards
Forget what the standings say: Edwards has been the top driver in the Cup series in 2011. He finished second at Daytona, had the fastest car in the field at Phoenix before being caught up in a wreck and won at Las Vegas. Currently third in the standings, Edwards looks like the driver most capable of dethroning Jimmie Johnson -- at least for now.
Edwards should run with the leaders this weekend. An elite short-track racer, he has two career wins at Bristol and finished sixth in this race a year ago. It says here he'll finish higher than that on Sunday.
2. Jimmie Johnson
After three races, the five-time defending champ is in 13th place in the standings. He ripped off a top-5 run at Phoenix, but other than that, Johnson has been uncharacteristically mediocre in 2011. Right now his average finish is 15.3; if he finished the season with that average, it would be the lowest of his 10-year Cup career.
But this isn't new for Johnson. He's started seasons slow in the past and has always rebounded by the summer. That's the pattern that I see Johnson slipping into this year. He and crew chief Chad Knaus know there is little value in peaking in March; rather they excel at flourishing in the fall, when every race and every finish actually matters in the big picture of winning the championship in the playoff format of the Chase.
Johnson won the spring race at Bristol last season, so he and Knaus will lean on their notes. Anything outside of a top-5 run for the No. 48 team would be a disappointment.
3. Tony Stewart
Is Stewart a legitimate title contender this season? It's certainly starting to look that way. He nearly won the Daytona 500 before losing the draft on the last lap (he wound up 13th), he led 59 laps at Phoenix before a late caution flag doomed his pit strategy (he finished seventh), and he led a race-high 169 laps at Las Vegas but was slowed by a late pit-road penalty (he came in second). So, with a little good fortune, it's conceivable that Stewart could have one or two wins right now.
Stewart, who shares the point lead with Kurt Busch, finished second at Bristol last spring. He's bound to experience some racing luck soon, and if it happens on Sunday, he may well improve on his result from a year ago.
4. Kevin Harvick
Though Harvick has had a sluggish start to the season -- he's currently 20th in the standings -- I still think he will be in the championship mix this fall. Harvick is as consistent as any other driver in NASCAR, and it would be surprising if he didn't start rattling off a slew of top-10 finishes. Harvick doesn't win a lot of races, but he rarely beats himself and usually keeps the fenders on his No. 29 Chevy clean.
In 20 starts at Bristol, Harvick has nine top-five finishes. He needs a strong run on Sunday. Last year, after all, only one driver outside the top 20 in the standings after four races qualified for the Chase (Denny Hamlin).