The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was quickly shaping up into a three-horse race between 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth, five-time series champ Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, but Sunday’s race at Kansas severely impacted the title hopes of one of those three and has allowed two others to materialize in the championship picture.
Kenseth and Johnson remain 1-2 in the championship race, respectively, but a frustrating day for Busch has him reeling and strong performances from Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon has ignited their title hopes after four races of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Kenseth finished 11th in the crash-marred and caution-heavy race, but despite his struggles the effort allowed him to maintain his championship lead. Johnson, however, was able to cut the deficit from eight to three points with his sixth-place finish. Busch, however, was not as fortunate. He came into Kansas third in the championship and trailing Kenseth by just 12 points, but an accident led to a 34th-place finish that dropped him to fifth and 35 points out of the lead. It was his third consecutive DNF at Kansas and the combination of cold weather, a repaved track and new Goodyear right-side tires did not sit well with him afterward.
“The race track is the worst race track I’ve ever driven on, the tires are the worst tires I’ve ever driven on and track position is everything, you can’t do anything unless you’re out front,” Busch said. “I mean you get back in traffic – Kevin Harvick couldn’t pass me, he led the first 80 laps of the race – so I’d say it’s pretty pathetic.”
The big winners were Harvick and Gordon, in particular the Richard Childress Racing veteran who was not even a mention in the championship talk until his near-perfect weekend at Kansas. Harvick, who came to Kansas fourth in the championship and 39 points back, captured the pole and led eight times for 138 laps en route to his third win of the season. He now sits in third, just 25 points behind Kenseth.
“To sit on the pole and win the race is obviously a great weekend, and controlling our own destiny by doing that, putting ourselves closer to where we need to be with the championship race,” Harvick said. “We'll just keep having fun and keep doing what we're doing.”
Gordon picked up seven points on Kenseth with his third-place finish at Kansas, moving from fifth to fourth in the Chase and now 32 points back. Gordon’s team has struggled most of the season, but seems to be surging at the right time.
“We've had a tough year,” said Gordon, who is still looking for his first win of this season. “Last year was tough enough, and then this year I thought that we'd gotten all that out of our system and we didn't seem to have. But I'll tell you what, we never stopped working and trying to get the cars to suit my liking. And when the cars are solid and giving me good feedback and I can get aggressive with it, then my confidence goes up.
“And right now my team has been bringing great race cars to the race track, not just in the Chase but about three, four races I think prior to that, we just really started making some gains on some things, and it's shown up week in and week out. I'm having a lot of fun right now. I'm just proud of how we fought through a lot of the things we've gone through this year, and now when it matters most, we're making the best of it.”
Harvick and Gordon have had nearly mirror starts to the beginning of the Chase as both have three top-six finishes in four starts and each had their struggles at New Hampshire, the second race of the Chase. They arrive at the midpoint of the Chase riding strong momentum into Saturday night’s Chase race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in particular Harvick. He won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May.
“For me, I think today is more positive for us than any other race we've been to all year, just for the fact that we were at a mile‑and‑a‑half race track that had a lot of circumstances, and being comfortable, more comfortable than everybody else I guess you could say, driving the car and having the speed that it had I think shows the gains that we've been able to make since that race,” Harvick said. “You know, I think the confidence in the team and the car and the mile‑and‑a‑half stuff is good. The bottom line is you can have fast cars, but it's going to come down just like it did at the 600. You're going to have to have the right strategy to go along with everything as the day unfolds.”