NASCAR centerpiece: Chase report: A fast glance at Week 4

Rob Sneddon

The headlines at Kansas involved the latest “Boys, have at it” fracas – this one between non-Chaser David Reutimann and title contender Kyle Busch. But in the big picture? A fifth straight championship is now Jimmie Johnson’s to lose. Unlike Dover, where the No. 48 dominated, Kansas was a slog for Johnson & Co. He qualified 16th. He struggled in the pits in the early going. He backslid to 21st. He didn’t lead a lap all day. And yet when the 400 miles ended, he was second on the racetrack – and first on the Chase leader board. Next up, Fontana, where Johnson’s average finish in his career (5.5) is the best in the track’s history. Johnson tried to downplay the significance of his taking the points after three of 10 Chase races. “I’m not worried about who is leading the championship right now,” he said. Maybe not. But the 11 other Chase contenders probably are. 


At Kansas, for the first time in ages, Roush Fenway Racing was the class of the Cup garage. In addition to Greg Biffle and his convincing victory, which trimmed his deficit from 140 points to 85, Carl Edwards finished sixth and remains in striking distance in the Chase, just 53 points back, in fourth place. Matt Kenseth led 26 laps and finished seventh. Unfortunately for Kenseth, the six drivers ahead of him were all Chasers – including Kevin Harvick, whose third-place finish kept him very much in contention, third in points, just 30 back. And while Denny Hamlin struggled to a 12th-place finish and lost the points lead, his deficit is a mere eight points. So Johnson is right when he says that the Chase is far from over. With cars from so many teams – Roush, Childress, Gibbs  – performing at a high level, the 48 will have to work harder than ever to stay on top.


Kyle Busch finished 21st, the only Chase contender not on the lead lap, as a result of retribution from David Reutimann for an early incident. Reutimann was unrepentant. “I don’t care if you’re in the Chase or not,” he said. “You need to think about who you’re running over when you’re running over them.”


For the second straight week Paul Menard and A.J. Allmendinger scored top-10 finishes. But the spoiler everyone was talking about was Reutimann. He spoiled not just Kyle Busch’s day, but perhaps Busch’s season as well. The difference between 21st and seventh, where Busch was running when Reutimann rammed him, is 46 points. If Busch loses the title by that margin or less, NASCAR will have to think long and hard about the wisdom of putting 12 title contenders and 31 non-contenders on the track at the same time and telling them to “Have at it.”

Wait till next year?

The good news for Tony Stewart? He led the most laps at Kansas and finished fourth. The bad news? He scored the same number of points as Johnson and Harvick; he’s still 10th; and he’s 127 points off the lead. And Fontana, his worst Chase track, is next. Clint Bowyer’s nightmare continues. Just four days before racing at his home track, Kansas Speedway, Bowyer learned that a NASCAR committee had denied an appeal of his 150-point penalty for a rules violation following his win at New Hampshire.  Bowyer then had a 15th-place finish at Kansas that was even worse than it looked on the results sheet. Bowyer’s car owner, Richard Childress, has taken the appeal to NASCAR chief appellate officer John Middlebrook, but he could take it to the Supreme Court and it wouldn’t matter. Even if the penalty were rescinded, Bowyer would improve only from 12th in points to 10th. 

The last word on Kansas

Greg Biffle: “You know, I’m proud to carry the flag for Roush Fenway right now. I’m glad to see Matt (Kenseth), Carl (Edwards) and David (Ragan, who finished 16th at Kansas) all running well, and the other Ford cars.”

ONE TO WATCH: Greg Biffle

WHY HE MATTERS: Kansas win has him back in the hunt.

WHAT HE SAYS: “Maybe we’ll go do the same next week.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: Could be; he has four career top-fives, including a win, at Fontana.

NEXT RACE Pepsi 400, Auto Club Speedway

THE LOWDOWN Maybe they should rename this track Albatross Speedway. NASCAR doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. Last year, for the first time, NASCAR scheduled Fontana’s fall event during the Chase; after this year NASCAR is dropping Fontana’s fall event altogether. Chicagoland inherits Auto Club’s Chase date next season. That could be good news for everyone who wants to see Jimmie Johnson’s reign as King of the Chase end. Johnson, a SoCal native, has five career wins at Fontana but is winless in nine races at Chicagoland. Will the final Chase race at his home track help propel JJ to title No. 5?


2009 Jimmie Johnson

2008     Jimmie Johnson

2007     Jimmie Johnson

2006     Kasey Kahne

2005 Kyle Busch

2004 Elliott Sadler

ABOUT Fontana

TRACK: Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.), 2-mile paved oval

RACE LENGTH: 400 miles (200 laps)


Quote of note

“He could have wrecked me next year in any of the first 26 races.” – Kyle Busch, on non-Chaser David Reutimann’s decision to retaliate against a driver in contention for the championship.

Where to watch

Sunday’s pre-race show on ESPN starts at 2 p.m. Eastern, followed by the race at 3:00.


The shorter the better?

Will Auto Club Speedway’s decision to shave its fall race from the traditional 500 miles to 400 miles affect the outcome? Recent history says no. In the first 14 Cup events at the track, the leader at the 400-mile mark went on to win just once, in 1999 (see chart). In the last six races, however, it’s happened four times. Further evidence that since NASCAR introduced its next-generation Cup car in 2007, teams have had a harder time chasing setups under race conditions than in the past. While fuel mileage, crashes and random luck can certainly alter the complexion of a race the longer it goes on, the days when a team could find a burst of speed on the final pit stop appear to be over.

Quick dividend

Greg Biffle’s victory at Kansas came just hours after Ford’s director of North American racing, Jamie Allison,announced that the automaker would pay a $100,000 bonus to any Roush Fenway Chase contender driver who won a Chase race.


Car owner Chip Ganassi achieved an unprecedented grand slam this year, with victories in the Daytona 500 (with Jamie McMurray), Indy 500 (with Dario Franchitti), Brickyard 400 (with McMurray) – and, after Franchitti’s eighth-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway last Saturday, the 2010 IZOD IndyCar championship.


Auto Club Leaders at 400 miles

RACE          LEADER AT 400 MILES          WINNER

1997          Jimmy Spencer               Jeff Gordon

1998          Jeremy Mayfield               Mark Martin

1999          Jeff Gordon                    Jeff Gordon

2000          Matt Kenseth               Jeremy Mayfield

2001          Dale Earnhardt Jr.               Rusty Wallace

2002          Kurt Busch                    Jimmie Johnson

2003          Rusty Wallace               Kurt Busch

2004 (1)     Ryan Newman               Jeff Gordon

2004 (2)     Kasey Kahne               Elliott Sadler

2005 (1)     Kevin Harvick               Greg Biffle

2005 (2)     Tony Stewart               Kyle Busch

2006 (1)     Greg Biffle                    Matt Kenseth

2006 (2)     Elliott Sadler               Kasey Kahne

2007 (1)     Jimmie Johnson               Matt Kenseth

2007 (2)     Jimmie Johnson               Jimmie Johnson

2008 (1)     Carl Edwards               Carl Edwards

2008 (2)     Jimmie Johnson               Jimmie Johnson

2009 (1)     Jeff Gordon                    Matt Kenseth

2009 (2)     Jimmie Johnson               Jimmie Johnson

2010 (1)     Jeff Burton                    Jimmie Johnson