Who will emerge from the most wide-open Chase in history?
Jimmie Johnson had some fun poking back at the media after finishing second at Dover in the third Chase race last Sunday. He'd been 10th in the points going into the race and had climbed to fifth, 13 points behind co-leaders Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards.
"Are we out of it?" Johnson said. "Last week I was considered done."
Johnson had known better. He understood that points early in the Chase are fluid, that he was one good race from getting back into contention. This is a different Chase than in the past, a field with more balance. It is going to take longer to shake out, to separate the elite class of drivers and teams in 2011 from the rest.
Three races into the Chase, the top nine drivers in the points remain in contention for the Sprint Cup title and only 19 points separate them. It's a different points system than in previous Chases, and you may be thinking that it only looks closer. But it is closer. In fact, it's the closest ever in the Chase's eight years. The 19 points from first to ninth place after three races equals 64 points under the old system and the previous low from first to ninth was 101 in 2010; it peaked at 233 in 2006.
Kurt Busch's victory at Dover jumped him from ninth, 28 points behind, to fourth, nine back. It illustrates the high value of winning in the Chase. Tony Stewart had gone from the bottom to the top by winning the first two races; a 25th-place finish at Dover put him nine behind. If ninth-place Jeff Gordon wins at Kansas, he'll be right there for the lead.
"We've had only one good race [fourth at New Hampshire] out of three, but we're down only 19 points," Gordon said. "That doesn't have to be made up in one event. Seven races is a lot of races. ... And I think this No. 24 team is strong enough to put a string of seven good races together."
Johnson was a decent 10th at Chicagoland, despite running out of gas on the final lap, and he brought his damaged No. 48 Chevrolet to the checkered flag 18th at New Hampshire. The perception may have been he was in trouble -- based partially on an unfriendly radio communication with crew chief Chad Knaus -- but a second-place finish at Dover put him back in the game.
"It gets us right in the thick of things," Johnson said. "I think a lot of people overreacted last week about an 18th-place finish when we probably should have finished about 10th or eighth [without the late contact with Kyle Busch].
"This Chase is so tough to know what it's gong to take and I just look at the No. 14 car [Stewart] and what he did in the first two races and then the struggles they had today. I think it speaks to how tough these 10 races are going to be and how you think somebody is on fire and the fire can go out. It just shows how inconsistent this Chase is going to be."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., 34 points behind (10th) and Ryan Newman, 41 back (11th), still have time to climb back into the hunt, but it seems unlikely. Denny Hamlin, 68 points back (12th), would need a complete turnaround in the last nine races and that seems impossible.
So when will contenders separate themselves from the pack? After Talladega, the Chase's sixth race. With four races remaining, there will be four drivers taking the championship battle to Homestead-Miami: Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards.
How a driver has performed in previous seasons has been less of an indicator than how they have done this year because Goodyear, tired of being criticized for tires that went down unexpectedly and put drivers in the wall, has brought harder tires with increased durability on a regular basis this season. Teams have had to adapt their setups accordingly, and it's likely one reason former Chase drivers such as Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer and Chase hopeful Joey Logano had off seasons.
The harder tire also changed race strategy. Two tires used to be a big risk and this year they have had enough durability to work through a second fuel run.
Drivers and teams always have to adjust to tires, but it took more understanding and adaptability this season. Johnson, Harvick, Gordon and Edwards have done it the best.
Johnson has only one victory through 29 races, a reason some question the No. 48 team's ability to capture a sixth straight championship. But he has an average finish of 10.6, second only to Edwards' 10.4. The speed and consistency are there and the team's ability to operate at a high level under Chase pressure has been proven.
"This is a great race team and we proved it [at Dover]," Johnson said. "This is the same team that has won five championships in the past."
Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin finished third a year ago and they've won four races this year, one more than last year. His top-five and top-10 totals are way down from 2010, the result of a midseason slump, but he's finished second, 12th and 10th in the three Chase races. He's tied with Edwards for the points lead.
"I don't think you're going to see anybody come in here and dominate like you have before, as far as just taking off and running away," Harvick said. "You're going to be consistent and solid and it's just a matter of keeping yourself in it until you get to the last couple of races. If you can keep yourself in contention, hopefully you've eliminated most of the other guys in the Chase."
Harvick has never raced better than this season. He was the only Richard Childress Racing driver to make the Chase, and his ability to rally at the end of races is a testament to his driving and communication with Martin.
Gordon has three wins in his first season with crew chief Alan Gustafson. The speed in the No. 24 Chevrolet is there and Gordon has showed he's still got the desire to put the car on the edge when he needs it. And a chance at a fifth championship is a great motivator for Gordon.
Edwards should have had his second win of the season at Dover, throwing it away by speeding in the pits. But his run back to third at the finish was clear evidence that the No. 99 Roush-Fenway Ford will never be out of it unless it heads to the garage. Edwards has become a better all-around driver this season, no longer dependent up his ability on the intermediate tracks. His experience, maturity and years teamed with crew chief Bob Osborne have rounded out a package capable of winning the championship.
Unfortunately for Edwards, he is just one of many in a very crowded field.