The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway annually marks the unofficial midway point of the Sprint Cup regular season. On Sunday night in Charlotte, Kevin Harvick lived up to his nickname of the Closer, pulling away from longtime leader Kasey Kahne in the final 11 laps of a wild race to win NASCAR's longest event (600 miles). Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson got caught up in a late-race wreck and finished well back, in 22nd place. Despite that atypical result, the driver of the number 48 Chevy occupies a far more prestigious spot in SI's Midseason NASCAR Awards.
Johnson hasn't actually won a Sprint Cup title since 2010—and for the driver known as Five-Time (for his fistful of championships from '06 through '10), that constitutes a slump. But through the first dozen races of this season no driver has been as consistently fast as Johnson—and it hasn't even been close.
Winner of two races so far in 2013, Johnson leads all drivers in top five finishes (six), top 10s (eight) and average finishing position (8.0). He holds a 32-point lead over the second-place driver in the standings, Carl Edwards, which means Johnson could practically sit out an entire race and still maintain the points lead.
Through the first three months of the season it's clear that Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, have adapted more quickly to the newly designed car that NASCAR debuted this year—the Gen 6—than any other duo in the garage. There is precedent for this. The last time NASCAR unveiled a new car, the winged Car of Tomorrow in 2007, Johnson sailed to the championship. He appears now like a driver ready to fill out a six-pack of titles. Says Johnson, "I still feel like there's a lot left I can do in this sport."
Best Crew Chief
The chemistry between driver and crew chief is one of the great X factors in NASCAR. It typically takes years to develop, but in the case of Matt Kenseth and Ratcliff, all the elements were there for an instant reaction as soon as they started working together in the off-season.
Since joining Ratcliff at Joe Gibbs Racing after 13 years at Roush Fenway Racing, Kenseth has been having his finest season since he won the title in 2003. He has three wins and has led the most laps in three of the last five races (with a little luck, he and Ratcliff could have taken four straight checkered flags earlier this spring). "Jason and I had a special bond right away," says Kenseth, who is third in the standings. "I couldn't feel much better about our year."