He walked through the garage at Michigan International Speedway on a Friday afternoon in mid-August, his chin raised high, his weary eyes darting left and right as if searching for oncoming traffic. Then, just as Kurt Busch neared stall number 64, where his blue number 2 Dodge was parked, the woman appeared.
She was tall, blonde and twentysomething, clearly going for the Daisy Duke look. She did not want Busch's autograph—though her tight-fitting T-shirt had his likeness emblazoned on the front—or a photograph or even a handshake. Rather, she had come to the Irish Hills of Michigan on this blazing summer day to deliver a message.
"I want one thing from you," she told Busch, breathing heavily as she wrapped her right hand around his neck. "Go out there and kick Jimmie Johnson's ass. I'm so sick of him and of him winning. He's weak this season."
Busch nodded in agreement, which was understandable. Whatever passion drove her, this woman was right: For the first time since Johnson began his domination of the Sprint Cup series in 2006, he appears vulnerable. Consider that Johnson (page 72) finished the regular season fifth in the standings, a career low since the Chase format was adopted in 2004; that he hasn't won a race since June; and that he has only three top 10 finishes in his last nine starts. "There's no question that teams have more confidence that they can beat Jimmie than in seasons past at this point," says driver Greg Biffle. "There are 10 guys who I think have a legitimate shot to win it this season."
Indeed, there is no clear-cut favorite in this season's 12-man Chase field, because every top driver in 2010 has flaws. Kevin Harvick won the regular-season points title with a blend of aggression (two of his three wins came on restrictor-plate tracks, where ruthlessness rules) and consistency, but he's not even in the top five when it comes to straight-line speed. Jeff Gordon finished third in the regular season, but he hasn't won a race in his last 55 starts. And if you believe the favorite is Denny Hamlin, whose six regular-season wins are the most of any driver on the circuit (Johnson's five are the second-most), think again. Though Hamlin won at Richmond last Saturday night, his average finish over his preceding 10 starts was a pedestrian 21.6. Finally, be cautious about Carl Edwards. He has come on strong in recent weeks—he has eight top 10 runs in his last nine starts and climbed from 12th to fourth in the standings—but he has led just 133 laps this season, second-lowest among the playoff racers, behind Matt Kenseth's 35.
So the Chase, which begins on Sunday with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, is as wide open as a West Texas highway at midnight. The consensus in the garage is that this season's charge to the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 21 will be the tightest since 2004, when, in the first year of the playoff format, Busch edged Johnson by eight points to win his only title.
"Someone is bound to get hot and go on a roll in the Chase," says Tony Stewart, who finished the regular season sixth in the standings. "The question is, Who will it be?"
Who will it be? It's a September afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway. A breath of autumn hangs in the air; the start of the Chase is two weeks away. SI's pick to hoist the Sprint Cup is standing in the infield hours before he will finish sixth in the penultimate race of the regular season. "I think we've got as good of a chance to win it all as anyone," says Busch, 32, who finished the regular season 10th in the standings and with more top 10s (15) than any other driver save Harvick (who had 17). "To me this year feels like '04. We've just got to go out and maybe win one race, have a bunch of top fives and top 10s, lead laps and not do anything stupid."
A simple enough recipe, but one that no one not named Jimmie Johnson has been able to follow in the past four seasons. There are five keys to winning the championship—touchstone moments that have proven to be pivotal in the six-year history of the Chase—and Busch, more than any other driver, appears primed to pass each of those acid tests.
• Start strong in New Hampshire.