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The instructions came over the radio to Matt Kenseth from his crew chief, Robbie Reiser: Pit now for a tire change. The caution flag had just come out, with 50 laps remaining in the Neighborhood Excellence 400 at Dover on June 4, but Kenseth, running in fifth place, defied Reiser and stayed on the track, gambling that his tires would 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 had taken a swig of month-old milk.
This was the new Kenseth--not the mild-mannered driver who won the 2003 points title but the aggressive, risk-taking and, at times, in-your-face competitor. At 34 he has been embroiled in more controversy this season than ever before. He unintentionally caused Gordon to wreck at Bristol, but Gordon thought otherwise and shoved him on pit road. On several occasions Kenseth has verbally jousted with Stewart, at one point telling reporters that Stewart "should confront me if he's mad," and if he believed that Kenseth had triggered a wreck at Lowe's. Says Reiser, who grew up racing against Kenseth on Wisconsin short tracks, "Matt's as fired up this year as he's ever been."
Even Reiser had to admit that his driver's roll of the dice at Dover paid off: Kenseth passed Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray to win his second race of the season. Like Johnson and Stewart, Kenseth this season has flourished on every type of track upon which the Chase is contested--short, intermediate, flat and restrictor plate.
"I can honestly say that my race cars are better now than they were in 2003, when we won the championship," says Kenseth. "We're in contention to win almost every week. Does that mean we're going to win another championship? Well, I like our chances."
Tony Stewart was walking gingerly through the garage at Pocono on June 9, using his left hand to shake 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 all smiles until a young woman gave him a light pat on the tender shoulder, causing the reigning Nextel champ to wince in pain.
"I'm just trying to get through the injury and not have the wheels come off on our season," 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 Jimmie and Matt--have caught up to us."
A year ago, during testing at Michigan Speedway, Stewart's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, manipulated the setup of Stewart's car in such a way to make the Home Depot Chevy go faster through the corners than every other car in the field. After the adjustment Stewart was nearly unbeatable for two months, winning five of seven races from late June through mid-August.
But Stewart's team no longer enjoys a mechanical advantage over the rest of the garage. "It's hard to keep things secret when everyone in the garage works so close together," says Ronnie Crooks, the shock specialist on the Home Depot team, "but we've still got one thing that no one else does: Tony Stewart."
Though the performance of the number 20 team was inconsistent after Stewart's crash at Charlotte--a chart of his finishes would look like an EKG printout-- Stewart had still led more laps (807) this season than any other driver in the series except 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 the standings before the crash. "We're aiming to be at our best for the first race in the Chase. We know how to win championships."
It's Sunday, "money time," as they call race day in the garage, and Johnson, Kenseth and Stewart are strolling down pit road before the start of the Michigan 400 on June 18. Among the Big 3, Stewart has the most fans, and as he walks toward his car, men and women milling in the pits encourage him with shouts--"Kick some ass, Tony!"--and fist pumps.