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.
But Biffle and everyone else had forgotten about a sneaky stat: in the last three Kansas races, he and
"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.
The victim? Perennial nice guy
"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
"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.
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
"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.