Last Thursday evening the traveling city of NASCAR descended upon Kansas Speedway for the 30th of the 36 race weekends on the Sprint Cup schedule. Haulers pulled into the garage and soon unloaded the race cars. Private jets carrying the drivers landed at a nearby airport. Million-dollar motor coaches (the drivers' on-track homes) parked in the infield. And on Friday morning vans delivered the crews, ready to get their fingers dirty during another 72 hours of searching for speed. From February to November, at tracks from the Carolinas to California, this is how the show rolls on in NASCAR.
Yet something was very different last weekend at the track in Kansas City, Kans. Engines and pulses raced higher than in recent years. The focus of the 170,000 spectators over the three days was not on the infield partying (even the beer-guzzling diehards admitted that) or on the corporate suite promotions. It was squarely on the track. NASCAR has a wide-open, down-to-the-wire pennant race going on, the kind of championship showdown that chairman Brian France has been dreaming of since he implemented the Chase format in 2004. Heading into Kansas, the fourth of the 10 playoff races, the first nine drivers in the championship hunt—heavyweights all—were within 19 points, which translates into only 19 positions on the track. Yes, in the world of NASCAR, this is as riveting as it gets.
Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending Cup champion, began the weekend in fifth place, 13 points behind co-leaders Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards, and only nine behind former champions Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, who were tied for third. One point behind Johnson, sixth place was shared by another former champ, Matt Kenseth, and the surprise of the season, Brad Keselowski. One more point back was Kyle Busch, and another four, Jeff Gordon. In this 190-mph traffic jam every contender felt the pressure—at Kansas, R-rated words between drivers and crew chiefs flew over the car radios all weekend—but the best way to understand what it means to race for the title this year is to experience it along with Mr. Five-Time himself. For three days leading up to the checkered flag at Kansas, SI shadowed Johnson and the number 48 team, observing the inner workings of a dynasty that is the motor sports equivalent of the Yankees in the '50s or the Celtics in the '60s. This is Johnson's most challenging Chase so far, and last weekend showed why.
FRIDAY: 10:07 A.M.
START IT UP
The first Cup practice at the 1.5-mile oval was 83 minutes away, and here was Johnson, stepping out of his motor coach in the rising prairie sun. He hopped on the back of a golf cart and rode into the garage, where, for the first time at Kansas, he saw his gleaming number 48 Chevy parked in stall number 1. To Johnson, indeed to everyone on his race team, that number 48 Chevy has been a thing of beauty for the last five years. "People wrote us off just two weeks ago, but man, we are coming on," Johnson said, noting that after he banged into Kyle Busch and finished 18th in the Chase's second race, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sept. 25, he was 10th in the standings, his career low in the Chase. "This is our time of the year, and I just can't wait to get out there and flex some muscle."
FRIDAY: 10:27 A.M.
Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, stood inside the number 48 hauler, his thick three-ring binder in his hand. Knaus and Johnson entered Kansas knowing they had to make a statement. "I feel good about where we are," Knaus said. "We have a great string of tracks coming up for us. I'd be fine with a top 10 finish on Sunday, but we're really going for a top five." One reason Knaus was so confident: Johnson would be piloting the same car that he drove in the Chase opener, at Chicagoland Speedway (the 1.5-mile sister track of Kansas, with similar features), where he led 39 of the race's 267 laps before running out of gas on the final circuit and finishing 10th. That was the team's first—and decidedly uncharacteristic—mistake of the postseason.
As the first practice of the weekend began, Knaus and Johnson climbed to the top of the Lowe's Chevy hauler and lazily watched every other car purr onto the track. This was a message to the garage: The champs were acting as if they had no concerns about their car. But then, seven minutes into practice, Johnson slid behind the wheel, turned one lap and immediately sensed a problem. "Too tight," he said over the radio, meaning that the front tires were sliding up the track through the turns, forcing Johnson to ease off the gas. Twelve minutes into practice he was only 11th on the speed chart. After making a series of adjustments to the 48 Chevy in the garage, Johnson rolled back onto the track, but the tightness worsened. At the end of practice he was 18th on the speed chart, prompting Knaus to shake his head as he climbed down from the top of the hauler. Qualifying was next.
FRIDAY: 4:55 P.M.
Knaus's worst fear was realized: During Johnson's qualifying lap the 48 was so unbalanced that he nearly lost control in Turn 4. He wound up qualifying 19th, second worst of all the Chase drivers. Yet Johnson wasn't overly concerned. He has struggled in qualifying all season—his average starting spot is 13.7, his lowest since his rookie year, 2002—but has flourished in race trim, when the setup is geared to long green-flag runs, not the one-lap sprint of qualifying. "We've made it hard on ourselves," Johnson admitted.