A chill was in the air in Kansas as the Sprint Cup Chase contenders made ready for the green flag: a reminder that its getting late in the year that this is the third race in the Chase, and only once since the format's inception has the eventual champion not been in the top two post-Kansas. Everyone was highly motivated for success this afternoon - time was running out.

Kasey Kahne led the field across the starting line, and for the first two dozen laps there was the usual sorting-out of the running order as cars who had fared poorly - or flatteringly too well - found their natural level. Greg Biffle and Paul Menard were among those who fell back initially, while Jeff Gordon took up residence in second and duly took over the lead from Kahne on lap 28.

Gordon had worked up a 3.5s lead by the time the first caution came out on lap 41, trigged by Juan Montoya hitting the wall harmlessly in turn 3. The yellow gave everyone the opportunity for a well-timed pit stop, and at the restart the top five were Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart. Jimmie Johnson, who had been working his way up from a grid position of 21st, suddenly found himself back down there again after getting boxed in on pit lane; his car was looking distinctly average this afternoon.

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The restart only lasted six laps before another caution was out on lap 52: this time, contact between David Reutimann and Kyle Busch had sent Reutimann spinning in turn 2, although he managed to keep the double zero off the wall and the field managed to avoid hitting him at the same time. But he still needed an extended pit stop that put him three laps down, and driver and team were furious for what they saw as an intentional act by Busch. Something would have to be done to get payback ...

Matt Kenseth took the lead from Gordon at the restart on lap 56, and Gordon soon lost second place as well to Tony Stewart who went on to successfully challenge Kenseth for the lead on lap 81. Further back, Jimmie Johnson was continuing to slog his way through the field, and on lap 76 passed a sluggish Denny Hamlin for 15th place, while another Chase contender - Clint Bowyer - was plummeting backwards through the field to 35th place. He was soon able to pick up speed again but now he was struggling to stay on the lead lap - just another rotten day for Bowyer in his 2010 Chase campaign.

Pits stops were due, and there was no convenient caution this time; after the stops had cycled through, Stewart was in the lead ahead of Biffle, Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton and the race was over half distance.

By this point Kyle Busch was running in the top ten and had probably put thoughts of his earlier collision with David Reutimann out of his mind. But Reutimann hadn't, and on lap 154 it was time for that payback. Reutimann sent the 18 into the wall, causing major damage to the car: Reutimann paid for it by spinning himself.

Almost all of the drivers pitted again under the ensuing yellow - Kyle making an extended stay on pit road to repair the considerable damage to his car, but the team managed to work it so that he stayed on the lead lap, albeit back in 22nd. While the car was running, it wasn't going to win any beauty prizes - or many championship points. A damage limitation exercise kept Kyle circulating, but he made up only a single place between here and the end of the race, and duly ended up the worst placed of all the Chase drivers - a costly outcome indeed.

Kevin Harvick had stayed off pit road along with Mark Martin (who had started the afternoon being sent to the back of the field after having an engine change) and Ryan Newman; Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle were the first of the stoppers, in fourth and fifth place as the track went green again on lap 159, but racing only lasted five laps before a fourth caution of the afternoon came out for a heavy hit against the wall by Kasey Kahne in turn 4.

That brief run had been enough to pop Tony Stewart onto the front row for the double file restart on lap 170, and he made the most of it by immediately passing Kevin Harvick down the backstretch for the lead. Greg Biffle followed Stewart, as Harvick looked unable to maintain the pace up front and struggled to hold on to third.

Kevin Conway's engine blew on lap 186, bringing out the fifth caution and giving the whole field the opportunity to make a pit stop under caution that no one could say no to. Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard opted to take two tyres only, and as a result of their fast pit stops they lined up at the head of the field for the restart, with Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart ready to pounce from behind.

Instead, it was Menard who got the best restart and leapt away from the competition. McMurray had no way of running at this pace and fell back, leaving Kenseth and Biffle fighting over second place - which Biffle finally did on lap 206, going on to snatch the lead from Menard the very next lap. Biffle looked very comfortable in the clean air, and over the next twenty laps he built up a 3.2s lead ahead of the final round of pit stops, which started around lap 235 with just 32 laps to go to the chequered flag.

There were no dramas in pit road, and most everyone stuck with the four tyre option rather than risk running on old rubber, so once the pit stops had worked their way through it was still Biffle in charge, ahead of Stewart, Kenseth, Johnson and Harvick: Johnson had been working his way up, one place at a time, agonisingly slowly in his mediocre car, but it was paying off: he was past Kenseth for third place on lap 245 and then went side-by-side with Stewart for the second spot with ten laps to go. The matter was finally decided when Stewart got loose and fell back, but by this point their prolonged battle had given Greg Biffle the chance to take off into the distance, out of reach of any rivals.

There was no time left, and no more cautions to close up the field: Biffle took the win with a commanding 7s margin, his 16th Sprint Cup career victory and maintaining a strong record at Kansas - being the only driver to score eight consecutive top-15 finishes here. More importantly, it slashes the gap between him and leader from 140pts to just 85pts.

"It was a great day for us," Biffle said. "The car ran flawless. [Crew chief Greg] Erwin just made great calls in the pits, and the car just kept getting better and better and better." The car was initially too loose and Biffle resisted suggestions to have it tightened up as he was running in the top three at the time and feared losing the performance that he did have: "But they tightened it up, and off it went, man. All it needed was a little bit of wedge in it to take off."

Meanwhile the identify of the championship leader had changed: Johnson's second place was enough to overhaul Denny Hamlin in the points, and it's exactly this sort of "something from nothing" - or at least something from mediocre, and refusing to ever give up - that is the bedrock of Johnson's past successful championship campaigns.

With all of the top seven places taken by Chase contenders, Kansas has really closed up the points overall and made the Sprint Cup the closest we've yet seen three races in; but it was a bad day for Kyle Busch, whose feud with non-Chase driver Reutimann cost him four championship positions as his 21st place was the lowest of all the Chase contenders: even the ill-starred Clint Bowyer had recovered from going a lap down at one stage to battle back to 15th.

In reality, Bowyer is the only one of the top dozen no longer in with any realistic chance of winning the Sprint Cup. The rest are covered by a margin of less that 150pts - and the top eight are covered by just 85pts, the three on the unlikely margins being Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth despite the latter two's strong showing this weekend.

It shows that there is still all to play for, and that it's too early to start thinking about the winner coming from one of the top two no matter what the history books say.