Five things we learned on a cool autumn day at Kansas Speedway:
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 (
Which is precisely what he did. With 29 laps left on the 1.5-mile oval, Stewart entered pit road under caution trailing
The fact that Stewart so impressively beat the Hendrick Motorsports trio of Martin,
Well, for one afternoon at least, that talk was silenced.
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? "
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 ...
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
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."
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.
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.