The most schizophrenic championship chase in the history of NASCAR took on its latest persona Sunday, as five-time and defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson claimed a dominant victory at Kansas Speedway that pushed him back into title contention.
At one point, Knaus responded to Johnson’s complaints about an ill-handling race car, saying, “Jimmie, you’re turning the fastest laps of anyone on the track, and you’ve got a 7.5-second lead.” He took the lead for the final time with 27 laps remaining, surging past eventual third-place finisher Brad Keselowski and driving off into the Kansas sunset on a green/white/checkered flag finish made necessary when teammate Jeff Gordon blew an engine within sight of the checkered flag.
The victory was Johnson’s 55th career Sprint Cup triumph, and moved him into a tie with Rusty Wallace for ninth on the all-time win list. More important, it allowed him to erase the deficit he faced after a pair of mediocre finishes at Chicagoland and New Hampshire. Once tenth in the championship standings, “Five Time” now lurks just four points from a possible sixth consecutive Sprint Cup title with six races remaining.
"Jimmie was the car to beat all day," admitted Keselowski, who used a deft bit of pit strategy by crew chief Paul Wolfe to claim yet another impressive Chase finish. Languishing near the tail of the Top-10 in the late going, Wolfe left Keselowski on the track while everyone in front of him pitted. “Bad Brad” did the rest, manhandling his Miller Mite Dodge to a third-place finish behind Johnson and Kahne. "It all comes back to having a good team," said Keselowski, now fourth in the title Chase, 11 points back. "Good teams have good cars, they're fastest at the end, they have good pit strategy and they're strong through adversity. I just have a really good team."
Kevin Harvick left Kansas a single point behind Edwards, after his latest consistent – if not spectacular – performance. His Budweiser Chevrolet was never a threat to win, but lurked in the Top-10 all day before eventually finishing sixth. Harvick is still looking for his first Chase victory of 2011, but an average finish of 7.5 in the last four weeks will keep him solidly in championship contention heading to Charlotte.
With Kansas now in the rear view mirror, it now appears to be an eight-man championship chase. Ninth-place Dale Earnhardt, Jr., now lags 43 points behind; one full race with just six events remaining. With a winless streak now spanning more than three calendar years, the AMP Energy/National Guard team does not appear capable of such a comeback. Jeff Gordon plummets to 10th, 47 points behind after an unfathomable engine failure Sunday. He’ll need to win three of the next six races to resurrect his championship hopes, and that’s a lot of ask, even from a four-time series champion. Ryan Newman (54 points out) and Denny Hamlin (79 back) are merely along for the ride.