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September 15, 2008
Strip away the car and the team, and what enables a driver to excel? Sprint Cup favorite KYLE BUSCH and his closest rivals offer thoughts on what it really takes to get up to speed
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September 15, 2008

Where Does Fast Come From?

Strip away the car and the team, and what enables a driver to excel? Sprint Cup favorite KYLE BUSCH and his closest rivals offer thoughts on what it really takes to get up to speed

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So does that mean Gordon suddenly lost his ability to drive this season? "Absolutely not," Gordon says, before bringing up the reengineered vehicle, formerly known as the Car of Tomorrow, that went into full-time use this season. "With this new car it's harder to make a mediocre car into a good car during the race because there are fewer things you can change on it [during pit stops] than in the older car. My experience in the older car is actually hurting me, because the new car often does the exact opposite of what the old car did, like how it behaves when it goes through the corners. I think this favors younger guys like Kyle Busch, who don't have as many old habits to break."

Busch, who is in his fourth full season on the Cup circuit, vehemently discounts Gordon's theory. He points to the extra time he has spent behind the wheel this season—61 starts through Sunday across NASCAR's three premier series (Sprint Cup, Nationwide and the Craftsman Truck Series) plus 16 test sessions—compared with Gordon's 26 starts and about 15 tests. "You need seat time in all the cars to understand the vehicle dynamics and the feel," says Busch, "and Jeff hasn't spent as much time [on the track this year] as I have."

THE NEXT stop is Jimmie Johnson's hauler. Over the latter part of the 2007 season Hendrick Motorsports devoted its vast resources to testing and perfecting the number 48 Lowe's Chevy that Johnson was then driving; the payoff was that Johnson, at 32, became the 10th driver in the 59-year history of NASCAR to win back-to-back championships. But while Hendrick was trying to find more speed in the old car, every other team was building and testing the new car for '08. As a consequence, in the season after he won 10 races, Johnson struggled early. But he has four victories, three of which have come in the last seven races; Johnson, once his car was sorted out and back on the top level, was again able to bring his skills to bear.

It took a brush with death to set Johnson on the path to becoming an elite driver. In the fall of 1995, when he was only 20, Johnson competed in the Baja 1,000, an off-road race in Baja California that took the winner 20 hours to complete. Near the end of the event, while cruising at 90 mph just before daybreak, Johnson shut his eyes and, for an instant, fell asleep. His 6,000-pound Chevy Silverado hit a large rock, and he was jolted awake when the truck went off the road and cartwheeled down a steep hillside. Johnson was fortunate to escape serious injury, but it took until after nightfall for a rescue team to reach him. "That was the defining moment of my career," says Johnson. "I learned right then that I had to be more patient and not push the car 120 percent. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast."

Johnson is known in the garage as the smoothest driver on the circuit. He's doesn't bang his way to the front the way Dale Earnhardt Sr. did; instead, he works to keep his mistakes to a minimum, relying on an uncanny sense of anticipation and a cautious approach. He usually runs his car at 80% capacity early in the race, allowing himself to get into his racing rhythm. Only over the last third of the race does Johnson push his car to its limit.

"I compare driving well to a golf swing," says Johnson. "There's a rhythm to both of them. Each swing is like making it through a corner. You have to be relaxed and calm enough in this crazy environment so you can feel what's going on inside the car and be able to relate that to your crew. It's not something that's taught; you just get that rhythm from experience, like a golfer does with his swing."

IF ANYONE knows how to judge driving talent, it's 66-year-old Jack Roush, who has been a team owner in the Cup series for 21 seasons and has won two championships (in 2003 with Matt Kenseth and the following year with Kurt Busch). Roush has also hosted several so-called Gong Shows, which are open tryouts for spots in the Craftsman Truck Series and for open-wheel teams, during which drivers turn laps in identically prepared cars under the scrutiny of Roush and his team. What does Roush look for in the minor league racers trying to move up?

"The first thing you look at is the stopwatch," says Roush, who charts the drivers' lap times, "but you can't tell if someone is going to succeed until they get out there and compete. This is why I love [ Roush Fenway Racing's top driver] Carl Edwards. If he's in contention near the end of the race, he'll do everything he can to win. He's a gunfighter."

But there's something else that has made Edwards—winner of six races this season and second seed in the Chase—such a powerful force on the circuit. Growing up in Columbia, Mo., he raced on tiny dirt tracks around the Midwest and became comfortable driving a loose race car (meaning the back end of the car slides up the track in the turns). On dirt, cars constantly slide through the corners; similarly, this season drivers have been loose through the turns in the CoT because the new design creates only about half the rear downforce of the old model.

"Carl's dirt-track experience has helped him immensely," says Roush. "He's as good at driving a loose car as anyone today. He can drive the car from the back end. Couple that with the fact that he's a winner, and I think Carl has a great shot at the championship."

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