The dark Carolina sky was spitting raindrops as Jimmie Johnson strode through the infield at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, more than ready to call it a night. An hour had passed since Johnson had won Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, which had more caution flags (22) than any other race in NASCAR history and was the most time-consuming race (five hours, 13 minutes) since 1960. Johnson had capped the second half of American racing's longest day by charging past Bobby Labonte in the last turn of the last lap to capture his third straight victory at Lowe's. Now, with the clock nearing midnight, he finally walked out of Victory Lane--and straight into a future filled with high-speed promise.
"Nobody works harder than we do at Hendrick Motorsports," said Johnson, his voice hoarse. "It's why things are kind of going our way right now."
Hendrick drivers have taken five checkered flags in 2005--two by Johnson and three by Jeff Gordon. Then again, that win total has been matched by the Roush Racing team ( Greg Biffle, three; Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, one each). This weekend the Nextel Cup Series reaches the midway point of its 26-race regular season before the green flag drops on the 10-race Chase for the Championship. The Hendrick and Roush cars will be the favorites again this Sunday at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, which brings us to the first of five questions concerning the second half of the season.
1-- Can anyone overcome the dominance of the Hendrick and Roush teams and steal the Cup?
Not likely. In addition to winning 10 of the first 12 Nextel races, drivers on those two teams occupy five of the top 10 positions in the points standings. "When you look at Roush and Hendrick, they've got seven or eight engineers [each]," says Elliott Sadler, who drives for Robert Yates and is third in the standings behind leader Johnson and Biffle. "The other teams have only one or two." That engineering advantage has been the story of NASCAR in 2005.
In the off-season the governing body made two changes that have given most teams fits: It mandated a softer tire, which flakes sooner than the old tire and thus creates handling problems for the driver, and it also reduced the size of the rear spoiler from 5 1/2 inches to 4 1/2 inches, so the cars have less rear downforce and, consequently, less grip. Almost every team in the garage is still trying to solve the aerodynamic riddles that ensued. With their engineering manpower, however, Hendrick and Roush are much closer to a solution.
Says 2002 Cup champion Tony Stewart, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing and is sixth in the standings, " Roush and Hendrick are kind of like Ferrari was in Formula One last year, when they won about every race because they knew something that no other team did. Can other teams catch up with Roush and Hendrick? Yes. Will they? It's going to be tough."
2 -- Has last year's top rookie, Kasey Kahne, emerged as a championship contender?
An emphatic yes. Over the first two months of the season Kahne, like the rest of the Dodge drivers, struggled mightily. His new Charger wasn't as fast in traffic as the other cars. (The model's performance led some to refer to the Charger, which returned to NASCAR this year after a 28-year absence, as the Dodge Chugger.) The culprit was the car's blunt, aerodynamically challenged nose. That flaw prompted Kahne's owner, Ray Evernham, to strip the sheet metal off Kahne's car and replace it with a sleeker skin. "We had to work very hard to figure out why the new Dodges weren't faster," says Evernham. "We tested and tested, and we've made a lot of gains."
Kahne won the first race of his career on May 14 at Richmond, and over the past month he's gone from 22nd to 16th in the standings. "As bad as we were at the start of the season, I'm surprised I'm not farther behind," says Kahne, who finished 22nd or worse in the first three races of '05. "Now I feel I can definitely contend every week." (He ran up front at Lowe's until a flat tire dropped him to a 26th-place finish.)