Posted: Friday June 30, 2006 2:07PM; Updated: Friday June 30, 2006 2:34PM
It will be a thumbs-up campaign if Johnson can avoid his usual late-season swoon.
Harry How/Getty Images
The Pepsi 400 at Daytona on Saturday night marks the unofficial midway point of the 2006 NASCAR season. I'll be hitching a ride to the race on Air Force Two with the Vice President -- check out SI.com next week to read all about it.
In the meantime, here are my second-annual midseason awards.
Driver of the Year: Jimmie Johnson
For the third consecutive season, Johnson has raced to the points lead early in the schedule. After reeling off 13 top 10 finishes in the first 16 races of '06, JJ is clearly the man to beat for the championship. Yet, oddly, the No. 48 team seems vulnerable. In the last two years, Johnson stumbled when summer cooled into fall. Whether or not he and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, can continue their consistency will be the No. 1 story line to follow from now until November.
Surprise of the Year: Kasey Kahne
As I wrote in Sports Illustrated this week, Kahne is hands-down NASCAR's biggest surprise of 2006. He's won a series-high five races and in doing so has established himself as the driver to beat at the 1.5- and 2-mile tracks.
What kind of star power does Kahne already possess? Here's one story: Last spring I flew with Kahne and Tony Stewart on Stewart's jet to a tiny airstrip in the middle of Nowheresville, Ohio. That evening we went to Eldora Speedway, the dirt track that Stewart owns, to take in a few races. By the time Kahne and I got back to the plane, it was approaching midnight. We thought Stewart was in the car behind us, but he was still lingering at the track and running late (a common occurrence when you're living on "Tony Time"). This meant that Kahne and I had about 20 minutes to kill while waiting in the dark, surrounded by nothing but a sea of cornfields.
Minutes later, out of nowhere, a young woman, maybe 17 years old, appeared. Cautiously, she approached Kahne with a that-really-can't-be-you look on her face. She had somehow heard through the local grapevine that he was going to be flying in and out of this airfield, and she had been casing the area for hours.
When she reached Kahne, she told him what a "HUGE" fan she was. Kahne patiently chatted with her for a few minutes, gave her hug, and as she wandered back into the darkness, I asked her if Kahne was everything she'd hoped.
"Ohmygod are you kidding?" she said. "This is probably the greatest thing that's ever happened in my whole life!"
Given that this kind of thing happens to Kahne a lot, it should be no surprise to learn that the best-selling female tank tops in NASCAR bear either Kahne's name, number or race car.