Five things we learned at Kansas
Rick Hendrick is vying for his race team's 200th Sprint Cup title
Jeff Gordon's championship aspirations are gradually looking gloomier
Even with car issues, Brad Keselowski remains near the points leader
Rick Hendrick's attendance for the remainder of the Sprint Cup season figures to be perfect. There could be plenty to see.
Not only will the owner of NASCAR's most successful organization eagerly count down what could be a record sixth consecutive championship from his driver, Jimmie Johnson, the journey to the titlists' podium at Homestead-Miami Speedway might very well put Hendrick in victory lane for the 200th time in the Sprint Cup series.
Johnson's victory on Sunday at Kansas Speedway might have been a precursor to something big for both men whose personal and professional legacies are so intertwined.
"A lot of people had said the magic was gone, and you look at Dover and then you look at this race today," said Hendrick, referring to Johnson's runner-up finish last week, "and they just put their heads down when it counts and get the job done."
With the win, Johnson bolted two spots to third in the Sprint Cup driver standings, just four points behind leader Carl Edwards with six races remaining. Johnson was a career-Chase-low tenth in points after the second playoff race in New Hampshire, 29 points behind. Johnson also broke a career-long 21-race winless streak.
"I can't say that I've known the number or thought about a number," said Johnson of the streak after tying Rusty Wallace for eighth alltime at 55 victories. "I look at this year, and there's probably three or four opportunities to win that come to mind that we just didn't take advantage of, and that's on everybody's back. I've messed up, we've had pit road issues, we've had a lot of little things go wrong, and we've had a lot of second place finishes that should have been wins.
"The competitor in all of us, we've known that we've been close. So yeah, we want to win and we want a lot more wins to start the Chase for bonus points, but it's been more about missed opportunity than really a number of races that we haven't won."
No one learned that Jimmie Johnson is a formidable race car driver on Sunday, not even after he led 197 of 272 laps. But here are five things we did learn at Kansas:
1. Jeff Gordon's title hopes are growing hopeless. It just made so much sense. And it would have been such a good story. The four-time series champion, the one-time wunderkind now 40-year-old veteran, entered the Chase for the Championship, arguably, hotter than any of his peers as he attempted to win his first Sprint Cup title in a decade. In the process, he'd have to take down his friend, protégé and the driver of a No. 48 Chevrolet he helped fund by vouching to Johnson's future sponsors at Lowe's. The story will be even more dramatic if Gordon comes back from a 36th-place finish following a blown engine on Sunday. Gordon's predicament seemed perilous enough when a decision to eschew tires on a late pit stop dropped him from fifth to 17th, but a blown motor just two laps from the finish was even more devastating. Gordon fell just one spot -- to ninth -- but is a crushing 47 points behind leader Carl Edwards with six races remaining.
2. Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick are bad pennies. They just keep turning up. Yet again, Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin were able to cajole an ill-handling No. 29 Chevrolet from midpack and wallow to a solid finish (sixth) after a late fuel gamble (and a little push under caution from the boss's grandson). Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne scrambled through much of the 272 laps to recover from putting the wrong front suspension setting in the No. 99 Ford, "most we have done with a car that wasn't capable of winning ever," Edwards said, and rallied to finish fifth by taking two tires and advancing key positions late in the race.
Edwards, who passed Harvick in the final laps, advanced one spot in the points standings to take the lead from Harvick, who slipped just one point behind into second. "I feel like we have had two weeks with very lucky breaks, both last week and this week," said Edwards, who finished third last week at Dover despite a pit road speeding penalty, "to be able to come back from a bad position on the racetrack. There is still so much racing left. We have run four races and it feels like we have run 400. There is a lot that can happen in the next six races. I have a feeling there will be more moments that define this championship, all the way up to the last lap at Homestead I think you will have to be on your game."
With the Chase being as much about the mitigation of disaster finishes and the exploitation of stellar ones, Edwards and Harvick appear equipped -- from their approach down to their teams -- to at least linger as contenders into the final races. At least. The championship may still be Johnson's to lose, but this pair appears ready to pounce if the champion falters. "I lapped (Edwards), and then (Harvick) was right there in front of me at one point in the race," Johnson said. "So for those two to both bounce back and finish where they did surprise me. I thought we were going to have a huge day on both those guys, and it ended up being just a small day on them."
3. Brad Keselowski isn't going away. His joust for the lead with Johnson on a restart with 28 laps left was scintillating, as he followed the champion onto the apron in an attempt to snatch a fourth win this season and first of the Chase. A third-place finish on Sunday put him fourth in points, just 11 off the lead, and if not for a broken power steering belt that relegated him to a 20th-place finish at Dover, he could very well be the points leader. "Makes you kick yourself that last week at Dover we had troubles we did because we've had top-5 cars each and every week, we're executing very well as a group and as a team," he said. "The things that we can control we're doing very well. We were about a third- or fifth-place car today and brought home a third."
4. Tony Stewart can make an odd and costly mistake. The two-time series champion re-established the momentum gained from winning the first two races of the Chase, making his 25th-place whiff at Dover look like an aberration. So great was his momentum, however, that it carried his No. 14 Chevrolet shrieking through his pit box on a crucial late stop with Stewart scored ninth. Actually, Stewart admitted in apologizing to his team that he accidentally grazed the throttle as he applied the brakes, forcing the team to push the car backward before performing service. It had never happened before, he said. Stewart fell four spots to seventh in the driver standings with a 15th-place result. He is just 19 points off the points lead.
5. Kyle Busch is ready to begin racing now. Crew chief Dave Rogers said he was concerned with three of the first four races of the Chase -- Chicago, New Hampshire and Kansas -- and expects his driver's real playoffs to begin this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Busch was a mundane 11th on Sunday after a late two-tire pit stop wickedly affected the balance of the No. 18 Toyota for the second time in the race. Busch lost spots and valuable points, hurtful considering he has been in points-racing mode since the Chase began. Busch remained eighth in points, however, although he fell five more points behind to 20. "The disheartening thing is we just didn't finish where we raced," Rogers said. "It would've been wonderful to get out of here with a solid top-five finish, which we had the car to do it."