Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't the only youngster out here breaking curfew, playing the stereo too loud and talking back to the grown-ups. This is the year of NASCAR's Children's Crusade, and rebellion, disrespect and poor posture are everywhere. According to the papers, avid young gunslingers are slouching into town by the trainload. Thanks to better race equipment and better data acquisition, better young crew chiefs and better national habits of dental hygiene, these drivers arrive in the Show faster, smarter, more competitive and better-looking than at any time in the sport's history. And they're giving the older folks fits. Veteran Rusty Wallace, NASCAR Rookie of the Year circa 1984, characterizes the 2002 Summer of Love like this: "They're outrunnin' the s- - - out of us."
In 2001 he won both the Busch series championship and the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award. This year hasn't been so kind. Now 26, Harvick finds himself squarely in the clutches of an epic second-year slump, foundering in 32nd place in the points race with only two top 10 finishes. His car owner, Richard Childress, recently went so far as to swap Harvick's crew with teammate Robby Gordon's in an attempt to shake things up. Harvick's life, like that of most young men—in or out of a car—is rich with contradictions. Often charming, he is a talkative, funny, telegenic fan favorite. There's a very fine line between productive aggression and boorish territoriality, though, and Harvick sometimes garrotes himself with it. At Martinsville he so blatantly jackhammered Coy Gibbs out of his way in the Saturday truck race, and was so petulant when called to account for it, that NASCAR suspended him from the Sunday cup race. An education is an expensive thing.
With two wins and 10 top 10 finishes so far in his rookie season, Jimmie Johnson is the latest issue from NASCAR's platinum-plated V-8 phenom machine. Crazy fast and smooth as charlotte russe, he is fourth in points overall, has won three poles and has led more miles this year than anyone else. A native Californian who began racing in utero like his mentor and boss Jeff Gordon, he has a learning curve so steep you could rappel from it. But for a couple of novice mistakes, this former off-road wunderkind might have won three more races. Ten seconds one way or 10 feet another and Johnson could have won five races in the first half of his first year and become the hottest thing to hit American tracks since funnel cakes and binge drinking. As it is he'll have to settle for his current 72-point Helvetica incarnation as JIMMIE JOHNSON: SUPER ROOKIE! With a chance to shatter the modern record for first-year wins, he's the early shoo-in for Rookie of the Year. Sometimes referred to as the Kid, he'll be 27 in September.
Currently ninth in the points standings, Kurt Busch is a 23-year-old NASCAR sophomore from Las Vegas whose hobbies include waterskiing, baseball and taking the air off Jimmy Spencer's rear spoiler. The slender Busch played the entire drum break from In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida on Spencer's ample quarter panels on the way to winning his first race, at Bristol, in March. While Busch was climbing out his window at the start-finish line to wave at his fans like a 750-horsepower prom king, the 45-year-old Spencer was saying, ominously and in the first-person plural reserved for acts of Machiavellian revenge, "We never forget...." Which is good, because Busch will probably be around for a longtime. He is earnest, enthusiastic and is perhaps a better interview than he really wants to be. Busch got himself in trouble a few weeks ago when he almost proudly hinted at spinning Robbie Gordon at Charlotte just to bring out a yellow flag. He retrenched a few days later and explained, vaguely, that he had simply been misunderstood, but by then the damage was done, and he'd been hit with a week of detention by the NASCAR vice principal. On the upside, though, when asked after a crash in practice at Dover whether he'd been hurt, he said no, of course not, "I mean, it's the Rubbermaid car, right?" Imagine a choirboy with a stiletto in his sock.
Though three wins and six top five finishes in 2002 put Matt Kenseth eighth overall in points, a birth date of 3/10/72 seems to have him teetering on the slippery brink of geezerhood. How fleeting Time's sweet promise! Was it just 19 months ago, back when all the world seemed green and filled with music, that this low-key Wisconsin native was awarded his Rookie of the Year trophy? In his second season he suffered what those who fret such things call a sophomore slump, winning no races and only $2,565,579 to invest against his rapidly looming Sunset Years. On the track he races a deceptively quick, efficient line that leaves you wondering, as he glides into Victory Lane, how the heck he got there. His own father refers to him, quite accurately, as "the quiet assassin." Off the track Kenseth dotes on his wife and his son and Lars, a ginger cat named for the drummer of the band Metallica—incontrovertible evidence of his advancing age.
A quiet, sometimes dour-seeming Hoosier with a magnificent smile and a B.S. degree in vehicle structure engineering from Purdue University, rookie Ryan Newman has played the stoical nice-guy sidekick to Johnson's meteoric golden boy this year. At 5'10" and 207 pounds he gives the impression of fireplug immobility, but behind the wheel he is a brute Nijinsky. When asked for the best piece of advice he's received so far in his brief career, Newman, 24, a member of the Quarter-Midget Hall of Fame, replies softly, "Just keep the fenders on it." Apparently the fenders of others are not always to be held in the same esteem. Not afraid to reengineer competitors' cars during a rush to the front, he won the big money all-star race at Charlotte after hip-checking Elliott Sadler. Newman helped Kurt Busch perform high-speed structural modifications at Pocono and extended further generosities to an ungrateful Steve Park at Dover on Lap 125.