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CLASS IS about to begin. The driver's-ed instructor this after-noon in the Irish Hills of southern Michigan is a skinny 23-year-old dressed in a black T-shirt, baggy jeans and large sunglasses, an outfit befitting the outlaw vibe of NASCAR's reigning bad boy, Kyle Busch. But today he is sitting behind the wheel of a 2008 Toyota Highlander, parked in the infield at Michigan International Speedway. Busch takes off the sunglasses and, with his eyes closed, eases the steering wheel of his idling SUV to the left, imagining that he's ripping through a turn at 160 mph. He is trying to explain what he does best: drive a stock car really, really fast.
"The key to driving is your ass," says Busch. "You have to feel what your car is doing, and that feel is in your rear end. You have to be able to drive your car to the edge, to go as fast as possible without crashing, and it all comes down to feel."
O.K., so credit a sensitive tush as one factor in Busch's being the winningest driver in the Sprint Cup series this year—eight victories plus the points lead at the conclusion of the regular season—and the choice for most talented racer in SI's poll of Cup drivers (page 74). But what exactly is driving talent? Unlike in stick-and-ball sports, in which the athletes' skills are easily observed and evaluated, a NASCAR driver's talent is hard to pinpoint and difficult to quantify. The racers ply their skills while concealed in a 3,400-pound stock car, not in a batter's box or on a basketball court for all to see.
A study conducted 20 years ago by University of Miami neuro--critical care physician Stephen Olvey, who's currently a fellow with the Paris-based FIA Institute for Motor Sports Safety, found that the reaction time of race car drivers is about 33% quicker than that of the average person behind the wheel. But there's much more to racing skill than reaction time and a feel for the car. What about the ability to anticipate—while traveling the equivalent of a football field per second—what the competitors around you will do? Or exceptional hand-eye-foot coordination? Or a tankful of courage? Or the ability to succinctly articulate to the crew chief what changes need to be made to the car during pit stops? Or....
"It's all of that," Busch says, "but driving talent is basically something you either have or don't have. It's a born skill, like being able to run fast. It's almost something you can't describe. You can only see it when somebody has it."
SI recently took a lap around the Cup garage to learn more about it.
THE FIRST stop is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s hauler, which serves as the garage headquarters for the number 88 team. Junior has just finished his first practice session at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, placing 11th on the speed chart. As engineers from Hendrick Motorsports man the four laptops in the cramped room and process data collected during the practice run—from the vehicle's aerodynamic efficiency to its rate of fuel consumption—Earnhardt peers over their shoulders, eager to learn how he can gain speed.
"To be successful you obviously have to be on a good team with a great crew chief and great engineers and a great crew because no matter how talented of a driver you are, you won't do squat if your car isn't any good," says Earnhardt, 32, who finished the regular season fourth in the point standings. "But to be a good driver, you have to start at a young age and you have learn at a young age to let the fear go. You have to be a daredevil and be willing to push it to the edge."
Earnhardt, who started racing street stock cars at age 17, has been exposed to the dangers of the sport more than most. After his father was killed in a crash on the last turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Junior was back in his race car five days later, in Rockingham, N.C. "At that point I honestly didn't give a s--- what happened to me," he says. "But the one thing I knew was that I had to keep racing because that's what I do and it's who I am. This is the way I'm wired, and it's the way all the great ones are wired."
JEFF GORDON is one of the great ones. The four-time Cup champion is standing in the garage greeting a couple of dozen fans lined up in front of him, every one clutching a poster or a hat or a T-shirt for Gordon to sign. In 2007 he had six wins among a career-high 30 top 10s, and he wound up second in the point standings behind his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson. This year, Gordon's 16th on the Cup level, has been different. Gordon has yet to reach Victory Lane, and he enters the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which kicks off this Sunday with the Sylvania 300 in Loudon, N.H., as a long shot to win his fifth championship. (Points are adjusted before the beginning of the Chase, with all qualifiers starting with 5,000 points, plus a 10-point bonus for each regular-season victory, which means that Gordon will be 80 points behind Busch.)