With today's Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning the stretch run before September's playoff Chase for the Championship, the fortunes of two drivers connected by one blockbuster moment in NASCAR's history have become a focal point of the season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver, is in the midst of a slump that has threatened his hopes of making the Chase. Kyle Busch, arguably NASCAR's most riveting driver, has been alternately dominating and dumbfounding this year, but he is establishing himself as the top challenger to the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion, Jimmie Johnson.
Can Earnhardt finally be the contender his devoted fans have been waiting for ever since he joined the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports in 2007? Is this the year Busch emerges as the next great champion, a destiny some predicted for him years ago even before he was unceremoniously dumped by team owner Rick Hendrick to make room for Earnhardt?
Earnhardt's race team underwent a major transformation after last season, when he finished 21st in the standings and out of the playoff field for the third time in four years. A new crew chief, shop and fleet of race cars awaited him this year, and Earnhardt thrived in the environment. He was as high as third in the standings and came close to posting his first victory since 2008, placing second at Martinsville, Va., and Kansas and running out of gas while leading on the final lap of the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., in May.
A berth in the 12-car field for the Chase was seemingly assured just a few weeks ago. But a five-race stumble has dropped Earnhardt to ninth in the standings.
The frustration has bubbled over at times; Earnhardt has complained about the setups and even snapped about teammates after races. But he played down those emotions this week.
"What are you going to do?" Earnhardt said when asked if he was angry about the drop in the standings. "I'm not going to make myself miserable worrying about it. I'm just going to try to put the hammer down when I get to that part of the day and see what happens."
Perhaps the response is evidence of the calming influence of crew chief Steve Letarte.
"I'm probably the only one in the country, I'm not that worried about Dale Jr.," Letarte said.
Busch is fifth in the Chase and has three victories to tie with Kevin Harvick for the best in the Cup series. Asked about the points system punishing drivers for poor finishes, Busch made clear he was looking ahead to how the system could affect him in the playoff.
"A bad day used to not knock you back as far as what it does now," Busch said. "Through the Chase, it's going to be important to not have a bad day."
Busch has been in the headlines seemingly every week. When he was not winning, Busch was deliberately wrecking Harvick's car on pit road after a race. Or he was being punched by Harvick's team owner, Richard Childress, over another incident.
All of which raised the issue of Busch's maturity. But he may be answering that question.
"He handled it well, he didn't say too much. He moved on," said Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs.
Ragan takes pole: David Ragan, who got his first Sprint Cup win earlier this month at Daytona, added the pole for the Brickyard 400 to his resume. He turned a lap of 182.994 mph in his Roush Fenway Racing Ford to bump three-time race winner Johnson from the pole. "It will be cool to lead the pack," Ragan said. "… Any type of accomplishment you get here is cool." Kasey Kahne then ran 182.927 mph to nudge Johnson to third.