It's easy toforget sometimes what NASCAR's really about. Amid all the fan-friendly hooplaand relentless merchandising, the hyping of a driver's personality overperformance, the goofy television commercials, the elaborate sponsor-logo paintjobs and the Hollywood tie-ins (Is Ricky Bobby a real driver?), the essence ofthe sport--America's best drivers racing all out, side by side from Februarythrough November--gets obscured. With just over two months to go before thegreen flag drops on the Chase for the Championship, it's time to return thespotlight to where it belongs: the track. ¬∂ That's where Jimmie Johnson, MattKenseth and Tony Stewart--each in the prime of an exceptional drivingcareer--have displayed a championship-caliber mixture of speed and resiliencyweek in and week out. They are the Big 3 of 2006, and over the next five monthstheir dash for the Nextel Cup should shape up to be one of the most compellingin the sport's history. ¬∂ Fittingly, each represents one of the threepowerhouse teams of NASCAR-- Hendrick Motorsports (Johnson), Roush Racing(Kenseth) and Joe Gibbs Racing (Stewart)--which combined won 10 of the last 11Cup titles. Through the first 15 races this season the Big 3 together had wonsix races and led 34.8% of the 4,779 total laps; they were also first(Johnson), second (Kenseth) and sixth (Stewart) in the points standings.Stewart, the defending Nextel champion, lost ground because of a brokenshoulder he suffered in a May 28 crash at Lowe's Motor Speedway but overall hadbeen far more dominant than his standing indicated.
A handful of otherdrivers were in a bunch with the Big 3--Kasey Kahne (third in the standings),Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fourth), Mark Martin (fifth) and Greg Biffle (10th, andclosing fast)--but it's going to take a huge run by one of them to overtakeJohnson and Kenseth, and hold off Stewart, the drivers who are generallyacknowledged in the Cup garage as three of the top four talents of theirgeneration. (The other, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, has been hamperedby his car's poor handling in traffic over the past two seasons.)
"This seasonreminds me of when I was battling [David] Pearson and [Bobby] Allison back inthe '60s and '70s for championships," says Richard Petty (box, page 74),NASCAR's alltime winningest driver. "When you have three guys gunning forthe title, it pushes you to another level. Every week you've got to rise to theoccasion, because you're always looking over your shoulder. That's thechallenge in front of Jimmie, Matt and Tony now. And, man, they can't losetheir momentum. Like in football, momentum is everything in NASCAR."
When Petty won thechampionship in 1974, he, Allison and Pearson combined to win 19 of theseason's 30 races. The top few drivers of the late 1960s and early '70s battledfor the lead in races almost every week. Today, because of the ever-increasingparity in NASCAR--six different drivers won the first eight races of theseason--no threesome can be expected to conduct its own private race ahead ofthe field. That said, it's worth noting that 10 times in the first 15 races of2006, at least two members of the Big 3 finished together in the top five. WhenKenseth won at Fontana in February, Johnson was second; one race later, in LasVegas, they swapped spots; three weeks after that Stewart won at Martinsvilleand Johnson was third; at Talladega, it was Johnson first and Stewartsecond.
Says SterlingMarlin, a 30-year Cup veteran, "It's not surprising that everyone else ischasing these three. You've got two former champions [Kenseth and Stewart] anda guy who probably should have at least one championship [Johnson]. Plus,they're on the three best teams, so they have great equipment. It's lookinglike it's going to be a good ol' shootout between them."
Jimmie Johnsonvividly recalls the sickening sound he heard at Homestead last Nov. 20, the popthat meant his charge to that elusive first championship was over. On Lap 124of 267 in the season finale, Johnson, who has a master mechanic's sense when itcomes to diagnosing problems with the car, realized that he was losing air inhis right-rear tire. He radioed his crew chief, Chad Knaus, telling Knaus thathe should pit immediately and take on four new tires. At the time Johnson, whotrailed Cup leader Stewart by only 52 points entering the race, had fallen to28th, but Stewart was running anywhere from 13th to 16th; Johnson knew that ifhe could recover and win and Stewart finished lower than ninth, Johnson couldsteal the title. But Knaus, not wanting to give up valuable track position,told Johnson to keep racing. Reluctantly, Johnson followed orders. But a fewmoments later--pop--the tire blew and Johnson smashed into the wall in Turn 4.He was through for the night.
"That teampanicked in Homestead," says Speed network analyst Jimmy Spencer, alongtime racer. "They've got to be more mature if they're going to win thetitle this season."
Within a few hoursafter Stewart finished 15th at Homestead and sewed up his second championship,rumors started circulating that Johnson wanted Knaus fired for keeping him onthe track. Knaus, one of the most innovative crew chiefs in NASCAR, eventuallycalled Johnson, and the two cleared the air--a conversation that might soon beremembered as the start of their march to the 2006 title. "Everything gotblown out of proportion," says Johnson. "I didn't want Chad fired. Butthat experience of being so close has made us more hungry and more focused thisyear."
For the thirdconsecutive year Johnson, 30, was the most dominant driver of the first half ofthe season. After winning NASCAR's Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, he added 11more top 10 finishes in the next 14 races. But can Johnson and Knaus sustainthat success over the second half? In 2004 and '05 the team's performance felloff dramatically in the races leading to the Chase, costing the number 48 carits all-important momentum. Last year, for example, Johnson was the pointsleader through 20 events but then crashed in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolison Aug. 7; he finished 38th that day and surrendered the points lead toStewart. The crash triggered a teamwide meltdown with Johnson failing to finishhigher than 16th in the three events leading into the Chase and never regaininghis early-season form. (He wound up fifth in the points standings.)
"I started tofeel stressed as the Chase grew near last season, and that hurt our team,"says Johnson. "There were just so many demands on me that I let it affectme--but I'm not going to allow that to happen this year. We're going to bringour best cars to those last 10 races, and I'm going to try to reel off topfives and not have any DNFs. To me, this really, really feels like ouryear."
The instructionscame over the radio to Matt Kenseth from his crew chief, Robbie Reiser: Pit nowfor a tire change. The caution flag had just come out, with 50 laps remainingin the Neighborhood Excellence 400 at Dover on June 4, but Kenseth, running infifth place, defied Reiser and stayed on the track, gambling that his tireswould hold up through the dash to the finish. As Kenseth drove past pit road,he saw Reiser, his longtime friend, shoot him a disgusted look--as if he hadtaken a swig of month-old milk.
This was the newKenseth--not the mild-mannered driver who won the 2003 points title but theaggressive, risk-taking and, at times, in-your-face competitor. At 34 he hasbeen embroiled in more controversy this season than ever before. Heunintentionally caused Gordon to wreck at Bristol, but Gordon thought otherwiseand shoved him on pit road. On several occasions Kenseth has verbally joustedwith Stewart, at one point telling reporters that Stewart "should confrontme if he's mad," and if he believed that Kenseth had triggered a wreck atLowe's. Says Reiser, who grew up racing against Kenseth on Wisconsin shorttracks, "Matt's as fired up this year as he's ever been."
Even Reiser had toadmit that his driver's roll of the dice at Dover paid off: Kenseth passedKevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray to win his second race of the season. LikeJohnson and Stewart, Kenseth this season has flourished on every type of trackupon which the Chase is contested--short, intermediate, flat and restrictorplate.
"I canhonestly say that my race cars are better now than they were in 2003, when wewon the championship," says Kenseth. "We're in contention to win almostevery week. Does that mean we're going to win another championship? Well, Ilike our chances."
Tony Stewart waswalking gingerly through the garage at Pocono on June 9, using his left hand toshake with fans while keeping his right tucked in his pants pocket. Stewart,whose right shoulder blade was fractured in a crash 12 days earlier, was allsmiles until a young woman gave him a light pat on the tender shoulder, causingthe reigning Nextel champ to wince in pain.
"I'm justtrying to get through the injury and not have the wheels come off on ourseason," says Stewart, 35, who should be fully recovered by mid-July."But I will say this: It seems as if a few other guys--especially Jimmieand Matt--have caught up to us."
A year ago, duringtesting at Michigan Speedway, Stewart's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, manipulatedthe setup of Stewart's car in such a way to make the Home Depot Chevy go fasterthrough the corners than every other car in the field. After the adjustmentStewart was nearly unbeatable for two months, winning five of seven races fromlate June through mid-August.
But Stewart's teamno longer enjoys a mechanical advantage over the rest of the garage. "It'shard to keep things secret when everyone in the garage works so closetogether," says Ronnie Crooks, the shock specialist on the Home Depot team,"but we've still got one thing that no one else does: TonyStewart."
Though theperformance of the number 20 team was inconsistent after Stewart's crash atCharlotte--a chart of his finishes would look like an EKG printout--Stewart hadstill led more laps (807) this season than any other driver in the seriesexcept Greg Biffle. "You don't want to be peaking now," says Stewart,who's known for getting off to a slow start but this year was second in thestandings before the crash. "We're aiming to be at our best for the firstrace in the Chase. We know how to win championships."
It's Sunday,"money time," as they call race day in the garage, and Johnson, Kensethand Stewart are strolling down pit road before the start of the Michigan 400 onJune 18. Among the Big 3, Stewart has the most fans, and as he walks toward hiscar, men and women milling in the pits encourage him with shouts--"Kicksome ass, Tony!"--and fist pumps.
That's anotherinteresting aspect to this year's three-way battle royal: The drivers' diversepersonalities attract three sets of fans who are as radically different as thepaint schemes on the race cars. The strong-willed and opinionated Stewartenjoys nothing more than shooting pool in his Columbus, Ind., house with 9-to-5guys who get their fingers greasy for a living, all the while talking aboutwomen and fast cars. He appeals to the blue-collar masses. Happily unmarriedand able to joke about his expanding waistline, Stewart sees himself merely asone of the boys--albeit one who just so happens to have been blessed withfreakish abilities behind the wheel of a fast car. "I barely graduated highschool," he says. "If I wasn't driving a race car, I'd probably bedriving a cab."
Johnson, on theother hand, is straight out of central casting: good looking, telegenic andquick to flash a smile that can turn female fans into puddles. A native of ElCajon, Calif., Johnson, whose wife, Chandra, is a fashion model, keeps anapartment in the Chelsea district of New York City. Young NASCAR fans areespecially fascinated by Johnson, who in only five full seasons on the Nextelcircuit has come to represent all that is glamorous about being an Americanrace car driver.
Kenseth is at theopposite end of the Q rating spectrum. The native of Cambridge, Wis., has thefriendly face of a neighbor who will loan you his snowblower. Though he hasdisplayed more spunk at the track than in past seasons, Kenseth still maintainsa low profile away from racing. He likes to hang out with his wife, Katie, attheir house in north Charlotte or at their cabin in the woods of centralWisconsin. (Matt calls it his favorite place on earth.) The consummateprofessional, Kenseth appeals to no-nonsense fans who appreciate hard work morethan big talk. Not surprisingly, whenever the series stops in the Midwest,Kenseth is greeted during driver introductions like a native son returninghome.
"We're all alittle different, but the three of us are friendly away from racing," saysStewart. "People try to stir things up between me and Matt and Jimmie, andsometimes they succeed, but we all get along. Honestly. We do have one thing incommon: We all love racing."
So which one ofthem should be favored to win it all? "I think you'd have to go with Tony;until proven otherwise, he's the defending champ," Kenseth says. "Butthere's a long way to go to get to Homestead."
Indeed, the NextelCup marathon is only at the halfway mark. But with the Big 3 roaring along intop gear side-by-side-by-side, it should be a race for the ages.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
For the pastthree-plus seasons Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart have been thedominant trio on the Nextel Cup circuit, combining to lead the points standingsin 93 out of 123 weeks (through June 18's 3M Performance 400 at MichiganInternational Speedway). Here's a statistical comparison since the start of the2003 season.
|Weeks atop standings||15||39||39|
|Weeks in top 10||103||97||121|
|Top 5 finishes||46||40||54|
|Top 10 finishes||70||68||77|
|Pct. of total laps completed||96.5||96.2||95.9|
Read Lars Anderson's NASCAR Power Rankings and hisweekly insider at SI.com/racing.