Greg Biffle found the ruby slippers in Kansas, using a win in the Price Chopper 400 to assert himself and his Roush Fenway Racing team as contenders in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. With seven races left in the Chase, Biffle now sits a mere 85 points out of first place.
Biffle is now one of seven drivers within 100 points of new standings leader Jimmie Johnson. Meanwhile, Tony Stewart, on the edge of the top 10, is only 127 points out, making this one of the closest Chase fields in years.
The Sprint Cup Series now heads to the Auto Club Speedway for the Pepsi Max 400. After Kansas, the standings have been shaken up quite a bit, and some faces are in different places in these power rankings. So who's hot and who's not going into California? Read on:
Let's do some math here.
Solid Chase finishes + assuming the points lead + heading into home track + doing massive charity initiative this weekend + third-best track of Johnson's career = end of championship race this weekend.
Thanks for playing, everybody else.
Were I Denny Hamlin right now, I would feel like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.
At this point, winning the championship would not just be defeating a four-time champion. The sheer difficulty, the immense odds stacked against him, and the very unlikely way that winning would have to be done are certainly akin to blowing up the Death Star.
Now that Hamlin is out of the lead, even by a mere eight points, things become intensely more difficult. Johnson's got the psychological advantage once again. The competition knows that three of his best tracks come up these next three weeks. Denny's going to need to have something up his sleeve to counter that.
Third at Kansas will certainly keep the No. 29 team relevant in the Chase, but deep inside you know that Harvick has to be steaming about where he is right now and where he would be if the Chase didn't exist at all. It's no consolation that this happens to somebody just about every year, either.
At least Harvick, a Bakersfield, Calif. native, gets to go home this weekend, even if his "home track advantage" is going to be supplanted by the same guy who leads the standings over him right now. Don't be shocked if Happy does his home improvement shopping at Menards from now on. That's all I'm saying.
Carl stands the outside chance of becoming the first Chase champion to not win a race all season. Granted, I don't think he'll get the title unless he wins a couple of well-timed races, but the possibility is certainly there. The No. 99 team has been strong all Chase long thus far.
Generally, the way that things work out is everybody takes a mulligan in these ten races, but whoever either A) doesn't; or B) does the most to make up for it; takes the title. If Edwards can survive Talladega, he has a great chance at doing things the first way.
This is where the rest of the Chase field begins to drop off a bit. Kyle's now seventh in points, losing four spots because David Reutimann retaliated for an earlier accident by putting Busch up into the wall.
It didn't look like much to the naked eye, but Reutimann knocked a lot of parts off kilter in the No. 18. I know two guys who won't be exchanging anything in the annual Toyota Christmas gift swap.
I will give Kyle credit for keeping his cool as much as possible in the aftermath of the incidents. This is a much more mature Kyle Busch. He didn't turn the entire race into carnage between the two Toyotas, something a younger Kyle Busch might have done. That's the kind of patience that will get him to the top of the field at some point.
Kansas marked the first time in months that Gordon led more than two laps in a race. A solid top-five finish helped him gain three spots in points, where he currently sits fifth.
Of course, it will take far more than that to render Gordon a championship contender. Wins are a necessity for this team, which hasn't done much winning since its brilliant 2007 season.
It's a terrible thought, but you have to wonder if Gordon is on the downside of his career, and how exactly that will play out. Of course, nobody's suggesting that he can't pull something out over these next few weeks with a little luck.
Before the Kansas race, Ford executives announced a $100,000 bonus to be split amongst the crew members of any of the three Chase Fords to win any of the final eight Chase races. The difference in performance was palpable. Carl Edwards placed sixth, Matt Kenseth ran seventh, and Greg Biffle got his crew some nice paychecks for his victory.
Biffle isn't a title threat right now in the way that Jimmie Johnson is — he isn't even an unassuming title threat right now in the way that Carl Edwards is but the win will certainly help his prospects.
Busch started ninth and finished 13th at Kansas. Not a bad weekend, but not a particularly good one, either. He now sits sixth in points, 70 back of the lead, and lost two spots in the standings on the weekend.
This illustrates just how crucial it is to run up front every weekend when competing for the title. Busch had a weekend that some teams would have killed for - a consistent and quiet weekend that didn't damage any of his hopes. (His brother Kyle totally would have traded him their respective finishes.) But because eight Chasers finished 12th or better, with seven of them taking the top seven spots in the final running order, his prospects took a downhill turn.
Finishing fourth in one Chase race won't project Smoke back into the title race, that's for sure. But we all know that Tony could very easily be in the top three in points right now, had Loudon not worked out the way it did. Add the extra 94 points that would have come with that win and Stewart would be only 33 back of Jimmie Johnson.
The challenge now is for the No. 14 team to keep their heads up, try to find some good out of that knowledge, and remain consistent for the rest of the Chase. They can't take any more mulligans. But another string of finishes a la their mid-year tear will get them back up front.
I'm glad right now that I didn't go on the record last week calling Burton a dark horse for the title, because it sure doesn't look that way right now. Yes, the No. 31 led at Kansas, but it counts more to lead at the finish than it does on lap 147.
Right now the No. 31 team isn't establishing any consistency in the Chase. It's been this way since about Michigan - the team is trading off top five finishes with top-20s. That just isn't going to cut it.
Kenseth led his first laps at Kansas since the Michigan race. The first Michigan race. You know, the one that came 15 races ago, back when the weather was still nice?
Kenseth is also still far behind his Chase rivals in top-10 finishes, which may be the key statistic here. If not for the penalty to Clint Bowyer and his subsequent concession of the championship, this would be the weakest team in the Chase. Even the $100,000 bonus per Chase win to the crew may not be enough to get them up front.
What strikes me as bitterly ironic about the entire appeals process that Bowyer and car owner Richard Childress have gone through lies partially in the slap on the wrist that Jimmie Johnson got for a similar infraction last year. Let's say that the same penalty had been assessed on Johnson during the Chase last year. Mark Martin would have won his first championship. By nine points.
The greater irony of this situation, though, comes from the fact that Richard Childress was Dale Earnhardt's car owner. NASCAR wouldn't have dared penalize Dale Earnhardt back in the day. Remember that a penalty against Martin in the third race of the 1990 season made the eventual difference in that championship. Who noticed the problem with Martin's car? Childress.
Food for thought. Let's see some consistency in penalties.
That's all I have for this week - have fun in California, folks!