Monday October 5th, 2009

Five things we learned on a cool autumn day at Kansas Speedway:

1. Tony Stewart is still alive in the Chase.

The first two weeks of the Chase didn't go as planned for Stewart, the regular-season points champion. He finished 14th at Loudon and then ninth at Dover -- two mediocre runs by his standards -- and he fell 106 points behind Chase leader Mark Martin.

In many ways, Kansas was a do-or-die race for Stewart. After all, since the Chase format was adopted in 2004, only one driver (Jimmie Johnson in '06) has left Kansas trailing by 100 points and come back to win the championship. So Stewart knew he had to be aggressive and, if necessary, gamble to try to race his way back into the championship picture.

Which is precisely what he did. With 29 laps left on the 1.5-mile oval, Stewart entered pit road under caution trailing Greg Biffle. Stewart and his crew chief Darien Grubb then rolled the dice, opting to take two tires while Biffle took four. The quick pit stop propelled Stewart into the lead. Though Stewart's worn tires were losing grip faster than the drivers who had four fresh tires, he was able to hold off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon and Biffle to win his first race of the season. He's now almost within striking distance of Martin, tailing by 67 points.

The fact that Stewart so impressively beat the Hendrick Motorsports trio of Martin, Jimmie Johnson, and Gordon should also quiet some talk in the garage that Stewart-Haas Racing isn't receive the same quality of equipment from Hendrick as Hendrick doles out to his own drivers. To review: Stewart-Haas is a satellite Hendrick team. It receives engines, chassis, and engineering support from Hendrick. But in recent weeks it's appeared that the Stewart and his teammate Ryan Newman haven't been able run nose-to-nose with Hendrick boys, prompting some speculation in the garage that now the Chase had arrived Hendrick was holding some things back from Stewart-Haas.

Well, for one afternoon at least, that talk was silenced.

2. Jeff Gordon, like Stewart, isn't out if it yet.

Gordon continued his mastery of the 1.5-mile tracks on Sunday, finishing an impressive second. As I mentioned last week, Gordon, who is 103 points in back of Martin, has scored more points on 1.5-milers over the last 10 races than any other driver, which means he should run well Charlotte, Texas, and Homestead later in the Chase.

As recently as last year, Gordon struggled on these intermediate tracks. So what's changed? "Mark Martin has been a huge help for us," Gordon's crew chief Steve Letarte told me late on Sunday. "He's always been the best in the sport on the intermediate tracks, and once he came to Hendrick and started giving us his feedback on setups and what he was feeling in the car, it made a huge difference."

Gordon should be fast again on Sunday at California Speedway, where earlier this season he finished second behind -- who else? -- Jimmie Johnson. Which leads us to ...

3. The defending champ looked -- dare we say it -- a touch vulnerable on Sunday.

During his three-year title run, Johnson rarely has lost track position late in races. The No. 48 team prides itself on its uncanny ability to bring home, say, a car that's fifth fastest in the field in fourth place. This skill, more than anything else, has been the underpinning to the success of Johnson, his crew chief Chad Knaus, and the rest of the crew.

This is why what happened on Sunday was so unexpected. After dominating the field during the middle part of the race, Johnson pulled into the pits in the lead with 120 laps to go. Knaus called for four tires; several other teams opted for two. When Johnson left pit road, he wasn't even in the top 10. Stuck in traffic and in dirty air, Johnson's Chevy didn't handle as well for the rest of the afternoon and he finished ninth -- a performance that was hardly Johnsonesque.

He's still in second place in the standings, but the gap between himself and Martin, who finished seventh, grew from 10 to 19 points. "I hate losing points," Johnson said afterward. " I feel like we had a shot to win the race ... It's not the finish we were after. We thought we could finish better because the first half of the race went so well, but ninth isn't the end of the world."

4. Carl Edwards can start thinking about next year.

For several weeks now Edwards has gamely said that he isn't out of the championship hunt, that Roush-Fenway was making gains, and that he believed he would thrive once the circuit started visiting the 1.5-mile tracks, which have long been his strong suit. But here's the reality: Edwards, a year after winning a series-high eight races, has yet to reach Victory Lane in '09, and it has little to do with his performance behind the wheel. Put simply, the Roush-Fenway Fords just aren't as fast as Chevys of Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing. Yes, Roush's Biffle did finish third on Sunday, but from where I sit, that looks more like a one race fluke then the start of a trend.

Edwards nearly won at Kansas last year, when he made that daring last lap, video-game inspired move when he passed Johnson between Turns 3 and 4, purposely slammed into the wall, and hoped to bounce off of it and steal the victory. It didn't work out then -- he hit the wall harder then he thought and wound up second -- but Edwards earned the respect of the garage that day by his bold driving.

On Sunday Edwards, who was SI's preseason pick to win the title, never was a serious factor. He finished 10th and is now 11th in the standings, 165 points behind Martin. Even Edwards, a realist, knows that he won't be winning the championship this year.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is starting to make some gains.

Yes, Little E, who is suffering through the worst season of his Cup career, is starting to show some signs of life. He qualified second at Kansas -- his best qualifying run of the season -- and he dominated the race early, roaring past Martin to grab the lead.

Is this a mirage or is Earnhardt beginning to turn things around? To read more about this, check out my story in the magazine this week.

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