The 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup is proving thoroughly unpredictable and exciting - even if some of the individual races themselves have stubbornly refused to spark into life at times.
This week it was Jimmie Johnson who suddenly rebounded from a lacklustre start to the Chase by dominating the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, a race which ran for a long green flag stretch and looked about to settle into yet another fuel conservation finish, before a late sequence of yellow flags and a final green-white-chequered finish brought the event to life at last.
Greg Biffle had taken pole in qualifying and led the field to the green flag on Sunday afternoon for the fourth race of the Chase, with Carl Edwards alongside him on the front row. Once underway, Edwards immediately started falling back while Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart were notably on the move in the right direction.
A frontstretch spin by Bobby Labonte brought out the first caution on lap 20 and all the cars took advantage of the early opportunity to pit - including Jimmie Johnson, although he opted for two tyres only at this point and duly picked up eight spots and took the restart in the lead ahead of Matt Kenseth, Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle. Johnson led for the next 16 laps before Kenseth came on strong and settled in to a comfortable lead of his own which he was able to keep almost to the next round of green flag pit stops, after which the momentum swung back once more in Johnson's direction.
A short debris caution on lap 85 allowed Kyle Busch to win the race off pit lane and lead for a while, but it was a bad stop for Edwards who had sunk back to 19th before the stop and was now in 25th after the #99 crew threw everything short of the kitchen sink into the battle to revive the car's performance. Once Jimmie Johnson reclaimed the lead on lap 94, he was evidently moving in for the duration: with the exception of just three laps during the next three pit stop cycles he would stay in the lead right through to lap 220 which included a short third caution for debris on lap 206 after a 116-lap green flag stint.
The caution immediately put paid to the huge 12s lead that the #48 had been sitting on. Johnson had just put a lap on Kurt Busch, who accordingly got the free pass; that was bad news for Carl Edwards who had been desperately hoping to be leading the lapped cars and pick up the lucky dog for himself. It was looking a grim day for the #99 at this point.
On lap 210, Johnson led Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski to the green flag. The big discussion amongst the teams and their drivers was whether they could make it to the end of the race on their current tank of gas. Most decided not, even with a late top-off and excessive fuel conservation - not even a few more caution flags would probably be enough. And another caution was just round the corner, when Landon Cassill went for a spin through the in-field grass on the frontstretch on lap 221. The happiest man on track by far at this was Carl Edwards, who - having missed out under the previous caution - was now able to return to get the free pass back on to the lead lap at long last.
Almost everyone dived into pit lane for that vital extra fuel top-off, but Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick tried something different - Harvick intending to get a lot of fuel-saving push assistance from Austin Dillon, Richard Childress' grandson making his Cup debut this week at Kansas. But NASCAR stepped in at this point and told Harvick and Dillon to make sure there was clear daylight between them at all times and that push-assistance would not be tolerated. It was a strange out-of-the-blue ruling which - if applied to Daytona or Talladega - could theoretically transform superspeedway racing if not make it completely impractical. Such are the vagaries of the sanctioning body at times.
With fuel conservation no longer an issue, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart quickly took over the lead as Kurt struggled on his older tyres. It proved another short green flag run before the return of the yellows on lap 240 for debris. Rapid top-up pit-stops and fresh tyres ensued for some, after which Brad Keselowski was shown as the leader for the restart ahead of Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle. It didn't take long for Johnson to pass Keselowski for the lead on lap 245 and once he did he would never be displaced again until the chequered flag.
But there was still drama to come. Chase contender Jeff Gordon's #24 had started to show alarming signs of its engine letting go as early as the caution on lap 240, but he kept it going almost to the very end. Then on lap 265 - two laps shy of the scheduled race distance - it finally let go in no uncertain fashion and Gordon was emphatically done for the day. The oil he dropped down on the track also meant a sixth and final caution, and with it being so close to the end it meant the race distance was now extended by five laps to accommodate a green-and-white-chequered finish.
"I started seeing smoke inside the car," explained Gordon. "Our day was pretty much over anyway and we were going to finish maybe 15th or something. Right there I started what smelled like burning oil and I saw the oil temp start to come up and I felt like it was just a matter of time before it blew up ... To last that long was pretty amazing."
That meant the end of Johnson's latest 2s lead and a restart for Johnson alongside Kasey Kahne, but it proved no problem for the five-time champion and he aced the restart and cruised away, Kahne spinning his tyres before slotting into second place ahead of Keselowski and Kenseth. Kahne was closing back up on Johnson in the final lap, but ultimately couldn't get close enough to mount a real challenge in time.
"On that restart, Brad kind of gave me a nice push, but I couldn't really get to [Johnson]," said Kahne. "I just really didn't have a shot at them there."
Remarkably, fifth place at the line was taken by Carl Edwards who had really done an amazing job to recover once he got back on the lead lap, and in finishing one place ahead of Kevin Harvick he also inherits the outright lead in the Chase championship standings.
"That was very, very bad at the beginning of that race. I cannot thank my guys enough for sticking with it and working hard all day. I cannot believe we finished fifth. It feels like a win," said a hugely relieved Edwards. "That's the most we have done with a car that wasn't capable of winning - ever. I'm really proud of my guys. We made good adjustments, and I just cannot believe it. From the way the day started, to finish like that is spectacular."
But it was really all about Jimmie Johnson: written off as past his prime just a couple of weeks ago, with this one bound he was free of the doubters and into third place in the Chase just 4pts behind Edwards. It was Johnson's second win of the year and his 55th Cup win in 357 starts (putting him equal in the record books with Rusty Wallace) as well as being his 20th win in a Chase race - the most of all drivers, and making him the only driver to have won a Chase race in each season since the format's inception in 2004 - after leading a dominant 197 laps of the 272 lap race.
Suddenly five-time was looking good for the six-pack after all: "You just don't know," he insisted. "Sure, this is a huge, huge step in the right direction, but in six races a lot can happen. So I don't want to get overly excited. We've got to go out there and race for this thing."
Keselowski's third place finish and Kenseth's fourth gave them big fillips in the points as well and they are in fourth and fifth positions respectively, with Kurt Busch (who dropped to 13th by the end of the race on what proved to be an ultimately misguided alternate pit stop strategy) and Tony Stewart (who dropped to 15th after sliding through his pit box in the final stop) losing Chase spots. Kyle Busch is in eighth place in the Chase, having run consistently in the top ten for much of Kansas until the very end, when a decision to try two new tyres in a late stop saw him drop to 11th. The #18's Chase story has been rather like that - so close, but just failing to catch light when it needed to and ending up close-but-no-cigar.
Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin are now over 40pts behind the points leader and effectively their Chase challenge is over. As is Jeff Gordon's, whose last-minute engine failure at Kansas resulted in a painful 34th place finish which means that his dreams, too, are now so much moonshine in 2011.
It's not a three-horse race just yet, with six of the ten Chase races still to go before the end of the season: but with Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson now featuring at the top of the points standings, it's hard to think that the 2011 champion won't be one of those three come Homestead-Miami on November 20.
Full race results and times