The third race of the Chase saw the cream rise to the top, 12 playoff participants proving their worth as none of them finished lower than 21st. It was a clear sign of how this year's field is evenly matched and, while a familiar face now sits atop the championship standings, eight drivers remained within 85 points of first. That doubles the previous record, the closing laps defined by the best of the best going at it in some thrilling battles for the four or five points that could settle this rapidly-tightening race come Homestead.
Are Jimmie Johnson and second-place point man Denny Hamlin still clear favorites? Yes, but I have to admit Sunday's results translate into more of a wide-open title race than previously thought. See who pulled the biggest upset, making their voice heard one week after being left for dead in Five Things To Take Away From Kansas:
1.) There's no place like Kansas for Dorothy, Toto, and ... Greg Biffle? We should have known better. Two weeks after a non-descript Chase beginning, experts -- including myself -- had all but written off Greg Biffle. To be fair, we had good reason, a 26th-place average finish the last four weeks, lowlighted by a 19th-place disaster at a Dover track that typically serves as an automatic top-5. With zero laps led, fellow Ford teammate CarlEdwards clearly coming into his own and a 140-point deficit to undo, even the Biff himself was skeptical moving forward. "That probably right there was kind of our Chase hopes," he said last Sunday, five days before following up with a second dose of pessimism. "We certainly aren't giving up, but mathematically it is an uphill battle at this point to get back in the fight. It is going to take about five weeks of good runs and to have some of those other guys have a little trouble to put us back in the hunt."
But Biffle and everyone else had forgotten about a sneaky stat: in the last three Kansas races, he and JeffGordon were the only two to finish in the top 5 each time. It's a place where a freaky race shortened by darkness handed him one of the most bizarre wins in NASCAR history, crossing the finish line third under yellow, yet given the trophy despite running out of gas and stopping in the grass right after the checkered flag. Last year, he led a race-high 113 laps and looked set to win again before a caution for oil on the track gave Tony Stewart a chance to beat him out of the pits. So the No. 16 team entered this race packing the perfect combo: Sleeper + Desperation + Terrific Track Position (fifth-place qualifying spot). It all added up to keeping them in contention all day. Suddenly, after a caution for KevinConway's blown engine, he was passing Stewart for the lead, then pulling away over the final 60 laps in a place that's quickly becoming a second home and an automatic boost inside the Chase.
"This is a 'go, no go' for us," he said, an understandable spring in his step after the victory also included a $100,000 bonus from Ford. "You know, everybody asked us last week if we're out of the Chase, have we given up, whatever the case was. The 16 team will never give up. We're just going to approach each race like we did today: qualify the best we can, do the best we can in practice, execute the best we can at the racetrack. We're going to go to California and do the same thing, Lowe's, Charlotte Motor Speedway, you know, see what happens."
That's the same thing Biffle, a Washington native, did in 2008, parlaying an underdog status into a third-place finish in the final standings. Sitting there as the only Blue Oval car with a victory -- he has two - perhaps this Chase has found itself a Cinderella after all.
2.) For Kyle Busch, what goes around comes around. He's got a history of being the most aggressive driver on the circuit, fraying tempers from ToddBodine to CarlEdwards to BradKeselowski the past few years. But on Sunday, the would-be championship contender pressed the red button one too many times in making a mistake that could ultimately cost him the title.
The victim? Perennial nice guy DavidReutimann, whose car Busch hit after the No. 00 got loose in front of him to cause a crash and a caution on Lap 53. It was the second straight week Reut had seen his car turned to junk, a Dover rendezvous with fellow non-Chaser RyanNewman making it the wrong place, wrong time to crash him -- even it was 100% accidental.
"That car was capable of running in the top 10," said Reutimann. "To get wrecked early in the race for no reason, it just gets a little old."
But it was the duo's recent off-track spat that put the icing on the cake. After beating Reut at Bristol in August, a cocky Kyle claimed he won because Reutimann wasn't "driving the place right." It was a comment that irked the driver to the point he responded on SIRIUS satellite radio days later, "It's probably the stupidest comment I've ever heard anybody say at any given time. He's not driving my frickin' racecar and I'm not driving his. Professor Busch, maybe he can start a driving school at Bristol and the rest of the field we can all join in and go. He can show all of us what we're doing wrong."
On Sunday, it was payback time, the wounded driver helping put a dent in Busch's championship hopes 100 laps after their contact in a blatant retaliation wreck off Turn 2. Following their new policy of laying off such infractions, NASCAR did nothing, while Busch's car turned into an absolute mess, damage all over the car's rear end. It took all he could do to finish 21st, angrily lashing out both on the radio and with car owner JoeGibbs before calming down enough to face the media in front of his hauler.
"It's just really unfortunate, these guys worked their butts off to put ourselves in the Chase," he said, backing off radio chatter NASCAR should "do something about" what happened. "My fault, 100% [for spinning him out], but then [to have] retaliation, to a guy that's in the Chase racing for something... he could have wrecked me in any of the first 26 races next year, that could have been fine, but It's just hard to swallow a day like today where we had a solid top 5 car going in." In this case, Kyle's claims have no merit -- if all 43 cars are allowed to keep racing during the Chase, what should make "an eye for an eye" different this time versus the first 26?
Unfortunately, while accidental this "racing deal" is the type that's helped settle championships for generations, a mental mistake Busch will have to learn from and rebound quickly to have a shot at this year's title.
3.) The No. 48 is beatable ... but it's still the team to beat. It wasn't pretty, but JimmieJohnson's gritty, second-place performance was perhaps the best of his three-race Chase so far. Starting 21st, all the cars seemed stacked against him, including getting boxed into the pits under the race's first caution, losing track position on an ensuing restart and dropping like a rock outside the top 25. With long green-flag runs, it was a heavyweight prize fight from there just to creep through dirty air and desperate drivers to make the top 10. But after 165 laps, there was the Lowe's Chevrolet creeping past the other Chase contenders and into 10th before a final two cautions gave ChadKnaus the perfect opportunity to fine-tune and make adjustments for cleaner air.
So with Johnson retaking the points lead, where do we go from here? There's certainly a sense of trepidation heading to Fontana, where this team has won three of the last four. Remember last season, it was there they took off, posting an average finish of 2.5 in a four-race stretch that left the Chase squarely in their control. Johnson also has another ace in his arsenal in co-owner and teammate Jeff Gordon, who gave the team his setup in another showcase of how the Hendrick drivers work together even though they're competing for the same trophy. (Although if you're Gordon ... when are you getting tired of giving the No. 48 the keys to beat you?) That's just one of many what-ifs that still leave Johnson vulnerable enough, valiant efforts from half-a-dozen rivals Sunday showing another repeat performance won't be easy. And then there's the biggest obstacle of all, Denny Hamlin, who had a surprisingly difficult day, but took a No. 11 car that was around 20th-fastest all weekend and drove it up to a determined 12th by race's end. Don't expect him to wave the white flag of surrender, joining a handful of would-be dethroners in a fifth straight title fight that's still headed down to the wire for the No. 48.
4.) RCR needs to throw all their championship muscle behind Kevin Harvick. During a two-week period where his program's been surrounded by drama, Harvick shrugged off teammate's Clint Bowyer penalty and Jeff Burton's late-race mistakes to put together a title bid all his own. Sunday, he was simply brilliant, driving steadily upward from 24th to third despite several R-rated radio rants toward his crew that won't exactly leave them sharing their driver's "Happy" nickname. It's not exactly the calm, everyone-play-nice chemistry the No. 48 team exhibits, but the stat sheet doesn't lie: it has worked for them.
"We feel good about where we're at," the regular season points champ said. "That's what got us here was those solid top-5 finishes and the things that we did during the year. So we've just got to keep doing those things and keep our cars in contention to run up front, lead some laps, get those points and we'll see where we're at when we get to Homestead."
That's a far cry from his other two teammates, sitting 101 and 252 points, respectively, from a title that'll likely elude their grasp. And that's why their strategy has to change. Bowyer claimed Friday the best thing he could do from here on out was be a good teammate. Well, we just saw what Hendrick's doing with the Nos. 24 and 48 acting as one; could you imagine if all three were working for Harvick? It's not what the fans like to hear, but to beat Johnson, you have to join in those team-sharing tactics, so don't be surprised to see RCR throw its weight behind one car at the expense of its other two.
5.) Paul Menard had the best Sprint Cup weekend of his career. Insiders snickered when Richard Childress announced Menard would be joining his team in 2011, adding a fourth car with a man whose break came in the form of Daddy writing a multi-million dollar paycheck. But just because money got him here doesn't mean the son of the home improvement giant should get kicked out. Qualifying on the outside of the front row Friday, Menard remained a top-10 contender during the race, using a two-tire gamble to even take the lead for 11 laps. Although a late pit stop hampered his effort, the eighth-place finish was probably the best all-around performance for a rapidly improving driver on the sport's bread-and-butter: intermediate tracks. Turns out Childress' bank account won't be the only thing getting a much-needed boost next season.
Race Grade: B. "The Fontana of 1½-mile racetracks." That's how one Cup driver described this cookie-cutter, which is ironic because this track will be snagging the beleaguered California Speedway's second date next season. But the third race of the 2010 Chase was not the snooze-inducing competition most expect on that two-mile speedway, with enough side-by-side action and Chase scenarios to keep fans entertained throughout.