DOVER, Del. — Jimmie Johnson has yet to take off on his traditional run of Chase dominance. Tony Stewart has two wins in the 10-race postseason without a points lead to show for his checkered flags. Kyle Busch’s four wins in the first 26 races have meant nothing the last three weeks.
Three races into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, no clear-cut favorite has emerged out of the pack of 12.
The standings are so tight entering the fourth Chase race this weekend at Kansas Speedway that there’s a tie at the top. Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards have the same number of points — but Harvick holds the tiebreaker because of his four season victories compared with Edwards’ one.
The top eight drivers are separated by only 15 points — the top nine by 19.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in serious trouble, and Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin are the bottom two drivers and can start planning for next season.
With seven races left, the Chase is wide open.
“I think the competition level is so even,” Harvick said. “I don’t think you’re going to see anybody come in here and dominate like you have, as far as just taking off and running away. 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.”
The revamped points system has tightened the field and made serious swings in the standings possible. Johnson went from 10th place and 29 points behind the leader entering Dover to fifth place and 13 points out after a second-place finish to Kurt Busch on the Monster Mile. Busch’s victory moved him from ninth to fourth in the standings, only nine points behind Harvick and Edwards.
More changes are ahead at Kansas.
Stewart, Johnson, Newman, Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon all have won races at Kansas.
Harvick, whose best Kansas finish was a third in 2010, considers himself a contender to race into Victory Lane even with a 14.3 average finish at the 1.5-mile speedway.
“Right now, we are looking for a championship, so whatever we have got to do to fight through that is what we’ll do,” he said. “You need to run good at all of them. You can’t run bad at any of them, to tell you the truth, but Kansas has been a place where we have been pretty good.”
After Johnson’s mediocre — by his standards — start to the Chase, some thought his five-year run atop the Cup standings was over. But the Hendrick Motorsports driver proved he will always be a threat for the title and saw his bid for another win at Dover throttled only by a pair of poor restarts against Kurt Busch late in the race. It may have cost him the race, but he thrust himself bac k into the championship picture.
“The Chase is so tough to know what it’s going to take,” Johnson said. “We look at the 14 car and what he did in the first two races and then he struggles. I think it speaks to how tough these 10 races are going to be and how you think somebody is one fire and the fire can go out.”
Stewart had smoked the field with Chase-opening wins at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, using a strong car and fuel mileage to outlast, as much as outclass, the rest of the field.
At Dover, it all fell apart.
He could never get it going on the track, from practice to qualifying to racing 400 miles on the concrete. He entered in first place with a seven-point lead in the standings and left nine points back and in third after he finished 25th.
Edwards, a Columbia, Mo., native, was one pit road speeding penalty from winning at Dover. The winner of one race and the All-Star race, Edwards led the standings for 14 weeks and hopes a win on the closest thing he has to a home track can be the big momentum builder toward his first championship.
“I’ve been trying to think about that, trying to win more so we can get more points,” Edwards said. “But it’s been a good season.
It just won’t be a great one until he’s the champion.
For Edwards — or the rest of the talented contenders.