What if Cup championship came down to Kyle Busch vs. Johnson?
Uneasiness dwells within NASCAR nation and it has nothing to do with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s recent struggles. As the season moves past its halfway point, one scenario could frustrate fans more than Kentucky Speedway's traffic.
What if the championship came down to Kyle Busch versus Jimmie Johnson? Who would fans want to win the title?
For supporters of either driver, the answer is easy. For those exhausted by Johnson's five-year reign and exasperated by Busch's actions, it's not. Can they stand Johnson hoisting the championship trophy another year? Or would they rather see NASCAR's bad boy hold that trophy for the first time?
"Jimmie Johnson,'' says a Virginia IT professional. "I choose him to win over Kyle 99 times out of 100. Kind of like the lesser evil.''
"If he wins the championship, I will become a big Kyle Busch fan,'' says a Nebraska insurance processor.
"A.B.J.J.,'' says a Houston paralegal. "Anybody But Jimmie Johnson.''
Despite Kevin Harvick's three wins, Carl Edwards' charge and Kurt Busch's revival, signs point to a possible showdown between Kyle Busch and Johnson.
That makes many fans anxious.
"I'm just tired of [Jimmie Johnson],'' said 53-year-old Greta Kirkland, the Houston paralegal. "I liken it to the Yankees, where you just get tired of the same guy always winning, especially the guy that has got all the money. The Yankees can go out and buy anybody they want and build a team, which they do quite regularly. I just have that same kind of feeling with [Johnson's team].''
Her frustration is not limited to Johnson and his team, though. She's not pleased with any of the Cup teams.
"No one else is stepping up to beat [Johnson],'' said Kirkland, a Tony Stewart fan. "They are finding every way they can possibly find to not beat them. If it's pit strategy, missing setups, just bad luck, speeding penalties ... they just seem to be finding ways to not win. It is upsetting because I think it hurts the sport. I hear from so many people ... that are just really fed up and not going to watch it anymore as long as he's continuing to win.''
Busch could be the one to end Johnson's reign. His victory last weekend at Kentucky -- moving him into a tie with Harvick with a series-high three wins this year -- moved Busch into the points lead. While Harvick is known for taking the lead in the final laps to win, Busch is leading the most laps. He's paced the field for 20 percent of the 5,295 laps run this season heading into Sunday's race at New Hampshire.
The Chase, though, has been Busch's downfall. He has never finished better than fifth. His best chance for a crown seemed to be 2008, when he won eight of the first 26 races but then faltered early in the Chase and finished 10th. With all the woes he's had in the Chase, it would seem he's due for better result. It's just a question of when.
For as much as Busch has dominated this season, Johnson hasn't been far behind. He's led nearly nine percent of all laps run this season, second to Busch. Although Johnson has only a whisker-length victory at Talladega, he lurks fifth in the points. Some fans worry that It's only a matter of time before Johnson turns on the "afterburners,'' as Kirkland says, and runs away with another title, leaving the sport with its only champion since Denny Hamlin's rookie season in 2006.
The thought of another Johnson crown could lead many fans to Busch if the two are racing for the title. Andi Wernke, a 38-year-old insurance processor in Lincoln, Neb., is a Kasey Kahne fan, but Busch could become one of her favorites.
"I used to hate him,'' Wernke said of Busch. "I couldn't stand him. He used to drive me crazy. He seems like he's changed and I can appreciate that.''
Wernke cites the TV show on Busch's wedding as softening her stance on the 26-year-old. She liked what she saw of his personal side.
What TV did for Busch, Twitter has done for Johnson. He's engaged fans, traded quips, posted funny photos and showed a side in 140 characters or less that fans hadn't seen. Some fans admit that they've become more of a Johnson fan with each Tweet he sends. Some even end their posts about Johnson with the tag #vanillamyass, a retort to those who claim Johnson is bland. He sees more of that and more support at the track.
"You go to a race track and you see how much 48 gear that's out there,'' said Johnson, who has climbed to No. 2 in overall merchandise sales on the NASCAR.com Superstore site behind only Earnhardt.
Busch ranks seventh on that list, but he says he's not trying to change for anybody. "I'm just trying to do what I'm supposed to do and do it my way instead of somebody else's way,'' he said.
Many fans don't like how he's tried to do things. Busch has been outspoken, involved in feuds and faced criticism earlier this year when he was ticketed for driving 128 in a 45mph zone on a rural North Carolina road.
Hilton Young, a 31-year-old IT professional in Suffolk, Va., is not a fan of Busch or Johnson. He supports Earnhardt. Should it come down to Johnson versus Busch for the title, though, Young's mind is set.
"I'd have to choose Jimmie to get the sixth championship,'' he said. "But as an Earnhardt fan, I don't really want anyone else to get seven championships.''
The more he talks about the seven titles Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty each won, the more Young's stance softens on Johnson. Maybe it would be OK for Johnson to get seven -- or more -- titles.
"That would just be an amazing accomplishment,'' Young said, comparing it to the Boston Celtics winning eight NBA crowns in a row and UCLA winning seven consecutive men's basketball championships.
Not everyone is ready to concede any more titles to Johnson. Car owner Richard Childress has four teams, including Harvick's, and admits it could be good for the sport to have a new champion.
"You can't take anything away from them, they've made history,'' said Childress, who won six titles with Dale Earnhardt Sr. "I think any time any one athlete is too dominant in the sport, it's not that healthy.''
So, what if it came down to Busch versus Johnson for the title? Would Childress be OK with Busch -- the same driver he attacked in the garage at Kansas after a truck series race last month for running into one of his vehicles -- winning?
Childress bites his lip before displaying a sly smile and offers a suggestion to the question:
"How about a Kevin Harvick win?''