One bad day in the last ten races of the Sprint Cup Chase can be enough to doom an entire season. Clint Bowyer had already found that out with his post-Loudon penalty stripping him of all that weekend's points; and last Sunday at Fontana, several more favourites for Sprint Cup success were about to have their championship hopes all but wrecked.
Under the blue skies and warm sunshine of California, the early stages of the race were quiet enough: Jamie McMurray converted pole into a 15 lap stint in the lead after besting Juan Montoya and Matt Kenseth in a three-wide battle on lap 1. Montoya was to drift up and hit the wall on lap 9 which put him off the pace, leaving Kenseth to take over responsibility for heading the field from McMurray on lap 15.
Montoya's encounter with the wall didn't bring out a caution, and the race was still green by lap 37 when pit stops were well underway; Kenseth kept the lead ahead of Clint Bowyer who had been making good practice climbing up from his starting position of 13th through the opening laps; and Jimmie Johnson was third despite an early scare with engine temperatures climbing sky-high because of debris on the front grill. That was cleared up during the pit stops which proved very timely for Jimmie, but further back there was more frustration for Juan Montoya who got a pit lane speeding penalty as a result of trying to compensate for a longer than usual pit stop attending to the damage from the earlier incident.
But on lap 40, just after the pit stops were completed, the yellow was out: and it was for Greg Biffle, whose engine let go in a serious plume of smoke and left him crawling into the garage. Fontana's notorious for being hard on engines, and everyone knew this was just the first engine-related exit of the day: but for Biffle, it's the nail in his Sprint Cup campaign coffin.
The field came in for another quick pit stop before the track went green again on lap 44, Kenseth leading Bowyer, Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Elliott Sadler and Mark Martin. Team mates Gordon and Johnson worked together to push Gordon to the lead, but a lap later Johnson made a move for the lead himself. From behind came further pressure in the form of the #18 car of Kyle Busch, who had leapt up the positions thanks to a two-tyre strategy and was now slipping into second place behind Johnson.
Another yellow came out on lap 54 for Marcos Ambrose, who had two flat tyres after spinning in turn 2. Dale Earnhardt Jr stayed out as others pitted and got points for leading, with Johnson, Martin and Kyle Busch slotting in behind him; but at the next restart on lap 58 it was Kyle who got a flying start, diving down the inside line to take the lead - before another yellow was rapidly on display.
This time it was for Carl Edwards, whose car had simply died leaving him unable to get back to the pit lane and having to park up on the apron until the safety crew could give him a push home. The cause of death was eventually diagnosed as an ignition rotor failure, which was eventually fixed to allow him to return to the track and pick up a stray point or two despite being ultimately 13 laps off the lead.
Kyle Busch led the field to the green flag on lap 62, but it was Jimmie Johnson who was coming on strong and who snatched the lead almost straightaway. Kyle's pace had fallen away sharply - he called the car 'junk' on his way into the pits later on - and he would lose positions to Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Ryan Newman over the next half dozen laps; Martin went on to challenge his team mate Johnson for the lead, meeting with success on lap 73.
The Chase contenders not finding much success so far included Jeff Burton - 27th and 27s down on lap 87, the lowest-placed Sprint Cup runner still running at the time, and having had a sharp on-track encounter with his team mate Kevin Harvick earlier in the afternoon. Kurt Busch was hardly having a more successful time, running in 21st and complaining that his car felt to him as if it has "cookie sheets" under his tyres stopping him from getting it to go anywhere he wanted.