p38 is a member of the mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase family and is a critical enzyme in the proinflammatory cytokine pathway. Other MAP kinase group members that share both structural and functional homology to p38 include the c-Jun NH2-terminal kinases (JNKs or SAPKs) and the extracellular-regulated protein kinases (ERKs). In this study, we determined the molecular basis for p38alpha inhibitor specificity exhibited by five compounds in the diarylimidazole, triarylimidazole, and triarylpyrrole classes of protein kinase inhibitors. These compounds are significantly more potent inhibitors of p38 compared to the JNKs and ERKs. Three active site ATP-binding domain residues in p38, T106, M109, and A157, selected based on primary sequence alignment, molecular modeling, and X-ray crystal structure data, were mutated to assess their role in inhibitor binding and enzymatic catalysis. All mutants, with the exception of T106M, had kinase activity within 3-fold of wild-type p38. Mutation of T106 to glutamine, the residue present at the corresponding position in ERK-2, or methionine, the corresponding residue in p38gamma, p38delta, and the JNKs, rendered all five inhibitors ineffective. The diarylimidazoles had approximately a 6-fold decrease in potency toward M109A p38. For the mutant A157V, all diarylimidazoles and triarylimidazoles tested were 5-10-fold more potent compared with wild-type p38. In contrast, two triarylpyrroles were 15-40-fold less potent versus A157V p38. These results showed that the molecular basis for the specificity of the p38 inhibitors was attributed largely to threonine 106 in p38 and that methionine 109 contributes to increased binding affinity for imidazole based inhibitors.