Several questions remain after four Chase for the Championship races
After a victory at Kansas, is Jimmie Johnson, currently third, the title favorite?
Can Carl Edwards, first in points, continue to survive self-inflicted mistakes?
Is Jeff Gordon done? Will Kyle Busch rediscover his regular-season dominance?
A new point system, fuel-mileage finishes and debates about a former champion mask what this Chase is about: overcoming mistakes.
That was the case once again Sunday. Carl Edwards tempted fate to finish fifth and take the points lead, while Jimmie Johnson -- remember when some people were counting him out two weeks ago? -- won a race for the first time in nearly six months. Others were not as fortunate as a pit road miscue could hurt Tony Stewart's title chances, and Jeff Gordon's hopes literally went up in smoke.
Sunday's race at Kansas, though, provided more questions than answers as the series heads toward the Chase's halfway point this weekend at Charlotte. Here's a look at many of those key questions:
Two weeks after some people wanted to count Johnson out of the title race, there are some all but ready to hand Johnson the trophy.
Calm down everyone.
Johnson had a great race Sunday, leading 197 of 272 laps. His pit crew was impressive as well. A sore point since last year, the revamped group had one of its better days Sunday. In July, Johnson was publicly critical of that group after mistakes at New Hampshire hurt his chances for a win.
"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,'' Johnson said. "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."
Johnson's team seems to have learned from its mistakes before the Chase. While the pit crew did its job Sunday, it will be interesting to see how they handle the pressure as it intensifies deeper into the Chase.
In the past two weeks, Edwards overcame a pit road speeding penalty to finish third at Dover and a bad setup to finish fifth at Kansas.
"I feel like we've had two weeks with very lucky breaks," Edwards said. " But there is still so much racing left. We've run four races, [but] it feels like we've run 400. There's 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 until the last lap at Homestead."
While those performances show his team's ability to bounce back from mistakes, it also shows that this team has more work to do. The speeding penalty was Edwards' fault. The setup decision rests with crew chief Bob Osborne.
"We had the wrong front suspension settings in the car,'' Edwards said. "Bob and I together in practice, we prepared the wrong setup, and they dropped the green and I realized we were in deep trouble. So Bob made adjustments to the setup, made some bigger adjustments than we would normally make, and then we were very fortunate with the late-race caution and being able to get two tires and have a shot to run up there through the traffic. We were very, very fortunate, and I'm extremely grateful. We should have finished 15th or 20th, so it all worked out in our favor."
If such mistakes continue, the chances are great Edwards won't win the title.
Harvick won the Coca-Cola 600 in May, the last time Cup visited Charlotte, but he remains adamant that the speedway is not his best. Before he scored back-to-back top-10 finishes at Charlotte, he had a streak of 13 consecutive finishes outside the top 10 in points races at that track.
So, which team will fans see this weekend?
If he wants to continue his string of strong finishes at Charlotte, he will need to have a better car than he had a Kansas. Harvick fought the car's handling throughout the race but rallied to finish sixth.
"It was a long day to say the least,'' Harvick said.
At this point the Chase is about surviving the bad days. Harvick did that Sunday.
"It's just a matter of keeping yourself in it until you get to the last couple of races,'' Harvick said after the Dover race.
That's what it might take for him to win the title. After opening the Chase with fuel-mileage wins at Chicago and New Hampshire, Stewart finished 25th at Dover in a race that was looked upon as a measuring stick for him since he ran poorly there earlier this year. He looked set for a top-10 finish Sunday when he slid through his pit stall on his final stop. He finished 15th, likely costing him at least half a dozen points with the mistake, and afterward, Stewart apologized to his crew on the radio.
Stewart is seventh in the standings, 19 points out of the lead. Making Stewart's path more difficult is that he has not finished well at Charlotte lately. Stewart enters Saturday's race with seven consecutive finishes outside the top 10 in points races there. He needs wins. Finishes outside the top 10 will make him a non-factor in this title race.
He won't go away. Even with those predicting that his inexperience in the Chase -- he's the only Chase rookie in this year's field -- would hurt him, Keselowski is fourth in the standings, 11 points out of the lead. Keselowski's third-place finish Sunday made him lament last week's 20th-place finish at Dover when he was slowed by power steering issues.
"Makes you kick yourself that last week at Dover we had [the] troubles we did because we've had top-five cars each and every week, [and] we're executing very well as a group and as a team,'' Keselowski said.
The question with this group is how long can they continue to do it? Keselowski has scored seven top-five finishes in the last 10 races. If he did that during the Chase, he'd likely win the title, but he has six more races to go.
Busch has been quiet in this Chase. After leading a series-high 15.8 percent of all the laps run in the first 26 races, he has led only one percent of the laps in the Chase. While some of the early Chase races haven't been at Busch's best tracks, this team has to reassert itself quickly or watch another Chase fizzle after a strong regular season.
"This is a big performance business and certainly you've got to make the most of it,'' Busch said before the Kansas race.
Busch is running out of time to prove he can win this year's title.
Yes. He's a full race behind the points leader. It would take a bizarre set of circumstances for him to be challenging for the title at Homestead.
Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found at here.
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