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NASCAR Cup Series

And Then There Were Three…er…Five…

By Vito Pugliese – One week ago I fearlessly declared that the 2013 Sprint Cup was indeed a three man contest, and that any suggestion to the contrary was merely wishful thinking. Following last weekend’s race at Kansas, I am reminded of the words spoken so eloquently by motivational speaker, Matt Foley:

“Sometimes I wish you’d just shut your BIG YAPPER!!!”

Kansas – the unlikeliest of places for the current Big Three to suffer a number of maladies – for three straight days. The quintessential 1.5-mile tri-oval cookie-cutter down-force track was just that – a total downer for Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, and most of all, Kyle Busch. Kenseth could just never get his car comfortable, spinning in practice on Friday, and riding around to an 11th place race result. JJ also spun out by his lonesome in Friday’s first practice session, then Kyle Busch goes and walls it in Turn One, then on Sunday, just augured it right into the SAFER Barrier. Johnson got caught on a pit road caution for debris, but still managed to finish sixth.

Okay, so if you finish 11th and sixth, I guess that’s not too bad – but it does mean that you did give up some positions and points this weekend. While Matt and Jimmie are still the odds-on drivers to decide the title between themselves, they did open the door for some potential challengers this weekend.

3rd: Kevin Harvick – 25 points  Think Harvick is having reservations about leaving RCR now? Sure Austin and Ty are the future of the company, but ever since reuniting with crew chief Gil Martin this year – and the presence of his son Keelan at the majority of the events, Harvick has quietly had one of the most successful seasons of his 13-year career. Three wins, including Kansas from the pole bodes well for him, particularly with Talladega, Martinsville, and Phoenix on the schedule – all tracks he’s won at since 2010. Oh and Charlotte is this weekend too – and the No. 29 just so happened to win there in May this year – and in 2011.

4th:  Jeff Gordon – 32 points While he got into The Chase under dubious, unprecedented, and the unlikeliest of circumstances (guy who owns sport said he’s in), Jeff Gordon has made the most of his opportunity and then some. Gordon has only finished worse than seventh once since Bristol – and that was at Loudon where he led 36 laps. Gordon slid just a tick through his pit box while leading late in the going, and there just wasn’t any time to catch back up. Had Gordon managed to have maintained his position or managed second that day, he’d be 15-18 points out of the lead in third place right now. But he didn’t. And he’s not. Which is why he wasn’t safely into the Chase to begin with. Not picking on him 24-fan, but such is the precarious position of a driver on the Chase bubble in 10th-11th, with no wins pre-Chase.

5th: Kyle Busch – 35 points Well its October and the Chase is in full-swing, so you know what that means: it’s time for Kyle Busch to completely unravel and lose it. Let’s run down the list of familiar offenses: gets involved in avoidable confrontation in lower-tier series? Check. Keeps hitting wall at Kansas? Check. The only thing left to have happen is either a blown engine followed by audible anti-TRD tirade, or flipping off local marching band at Martinsville in a couple of weeks. Oh, and getting caught up in The Big One at Talladega. The stress cracks were beginning to show at Dover post-race a couple of weeks back. He was grinding his teeth, resisting with every fiber of his being from going off about how fifth-place was garbage, not good enough, and that the car wouldn’t turn. Each year we hear how “The New Kyle” is all-in and ready to contend; each year the same thing happens: avoidable incidents keep occurring and a man-made meltdown imminent. Not saying he’s out of it by any means, but the fuse has been lit – and it’s only a matter of time before it goes off in a big way.

Now before you go and feel all good about yourself for knowing all along that The Chase was never a done deal and that obviously there’s six or seven guys in contention, those numbers listed above are a bit deceiving. Yeah 25 points doesn’t sound like a lot – but it is. Unless the 20 or 48 blow an engine or wreck, that is not going to be made up in one race. Under the prior traditional points system, Harvick’s current 25-point deficit would be the equivalent of a 100-point deficit; no easy feat to overcome in just a few weeks against the two teams that are consistently the fastest and least error-prone.

Charlotte is a bit of level playing field this Saturday for everybody in the Top 5, but the next two races are polar opposites, but will likely end up determining who will really be racing for the Cup come Homestead. The entire field can be wiped out at one corner at Talladega, while brake problems, flat tires, and losing two laps in the pits during a green flag stop at Martinsville are the likely scenarios that will be played out for some unfortunate soul.

You know what? Screw it; I’m sticking to what I said last week. It’s still a three-man championship race; just not yet…

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NASCAR Cup Series

Double-Duty Benefiting Kenseth in Championship Run

By Summer Bedgood – Silly Season last year was a little bit crazy, and led to some major changes behind the wheel of some competitive race teams. The two biggest changes were arguably Joey Logano leaving Joe Gibbs Racing for Penske Racing, and Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing—a team he had been with for over 13 years—to take over Logano’s ride at JGR. In fact, it was Kenseth’s move over to JGR that forced Logano to another team.

While both drivers have enjoyed success this season over last in their new rides, Kenseth is the one that has been making waves in this car since the beginning of the season. Kenseth has a series high seven wins this year, two of which came in the first two races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He is currently the series points leader with a slim three point lead over Jimmie Johnson, with six remaining races this year.

To call Kenseth the championship favorite would be right in line with what he has been able to accomplish and he may very well be a two-time champion after Homestead, but amazingly enough he has kept up an impressive pace in another series this year.

Kenseth has run 12 of the 29 races in the Nationwide Series this season for Joe Gibbs Racing, and has gone to victory lane twice, most recently at Kansas Speedway last weekend. Though the No. 18 team is not racing for an on owner’s championship as they have only competed in 16 races this year, Kenseth has been able to not only maintain his championship caliber run in the Sprint Cup Series. He has also been able to maintain some solid Nationwide Series statistics, winning those two races and earning four top fives and 10 top 10s over the course of those 12 starts.

In the same equipment, Michael McDowell has finished 34th and second; Drew Herring has finished 36th; and Joey Coulter finished 18th.

This goes directly against the notion that some drivers have suffered Cup Series level success while still running some or most of the Nationwide Series races. Back when Carl Edwards ran full-time in the Nationwide Series, and when every driver in the field was eligible for points regardless of whether or not they raced in another series, he was largely criticized for choosing to focus on two series at once and was speculated to have suffered in some seasons because of it. This was criticism that was generated against him, despite the fact that, even though Edwards raced all or most of the Nationwide Series schedules between 2005 and 2011, Edwards finished in the top five in points a total of four times (2005, 2008, 2010, and 2011).

It’s a similar story for Kyle Busch. Though he has an astounding 61 career wins to his credit over the course of 10 years, he has not finished higher in points than fifth in points in the Sprint Cup Series in that course of time. With that being said, Busch had been in the top three in points in the Sprint Cup Series up until last week in Kansas and has won four races this year even though he has won 10 races in the Nationwide Series over the course of the same season.

Though the Sprint Cup Series is not yet over, Kenseth does not appear to have suffered from balancing time between one series and the other. Despite the hotly contested topic of Sprint Cup Series drivers competing in the Nationwide Series at all, Kenseth’s championship run across both series this year seems to dispel the notion that drivers cannot be successful in two series at the same time.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Power Rankings: The Fast Fifteen

By Matt Weaver – While the Chase race at Talladega is considered the “wild card” event of the NASCAR playoffs, Kansas Speedway has adopted many of those characteristics in recent seasons as the surface has just proven to be largely unsatisfactory for many in the garage.

The speeds run high, placing a strain on the horsepower and grip is minimal for one of the most important races of the season based on its placement in the schedule and within the 10-race playoff format.

Those conditions were especially hard on both Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch on Sunday and that in turn affected the Fast Fifteen Power Rankings. The updated list can be found below.

1.) Jimmie Johnson (LW: 1)

The Golden Horseshoe Theory becomes more prevalent as the legend of Jimmie Johnson continues to grow. The latest episode involves Five-Time losing an engine with two laps to go and only managing to lose one position, from fifth to sixth. Go figure.

2.) Matt Kenseth (LW: 2)

Similar to Johnson’s ability to overcome bad luck at Kansas, Matt Kenseth was equally lucky and persistent. A bad pit stop and bad restart (or set of tires) dropped the championship leader into the low 20s near the closing stages of the race.  But a few late cautions and a strong car allowed Kenseth to salvage an 11th place finish and the Chase lead.

3.) Kevin Harvick (LW: 5)                         

We could someday look back at Harvick’s Kansas triumph as the catalyst for his first championship run. The remainder of the season sets up well for him as he has won at both Charlotte and Phoenix within the last calendar year.

4.) Jeff Gordon (LW: 4)

The four-time Sprint Cup Series champion just won’t go away. He miraculously by way of executive decision made the Chase for the Championship and has climbed up the standing is three of the four races since the rest. He’s gained on the leaders and sits at fourth place and just 32 points out of the top spot.

5.) Kurt Busch (LW: 10)

A fourth and a second at Chase races at Chicagoland and Kansas respectively have largely offset his 13th and 21st at Loudon and Dover. The end result is a middle of the pack Chase spot as he sits in seventh of the 13 teams.

6.) Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 6)

NASCAR’s most popular driver maintained his run of good finishes post-Chicagoland, scoring an eighth-place at Kansas. It’s not enough to get him back into Chase contention but could prove valuable for momentum heading into next season.

7.) Joey Logano (LW: 7)

After starting the first two races of the Chase without a top-10 (suffered a mechanical failure at Chicagoland), Joey Logano appears to have righted the ship. He’s finished third and fourth in the past two races and like Earnhardt can start feeling confident about momentum heading into the off-season.

8.) Kyle Busch (LW: 3)

Was the younger Busch brother’s struggle at Kansas a simple case of misfortune or the latest episode of his annual late-season meltdown, spurred on by his run-in with Brad Keselowski at the conclusion of the Nationwide Series race on Saturday?

9.) Carl Edwards (LW: 14)

Top-10s in every Chase race except for Dover must leave the No. 99 team wondering ‘what if?’

10.) Greg Biffle (LW: 8)

It must sound like a gimmick or a joke to mention this again but I’m not — Biffle is Mr. Top-15 on a weekly basis.  That’s not a slight on him as it seems that he’s maximizing the value of his equipment without putting a strain on his equipment.

11.) Clint Bowyer (LW: 11)

A 14th-place finish at Kansas leaves everyone at MWR wondering where the consistency from the regular season went.

12.) Richard Petty Motorsports (LW: NR)

Both Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola scored top-10s on a tricky Kansas race surface on Sunday. That’s good news for a team that plans to have both drivers back next season.

13.) Austin Dillon (LW: NR)

Dillon successfully wrangled the championship lead from Sam Hornish Jr. at Kansas and momentum may be on his side as we enter the final five races of the season.

14.) Paul Menard (LW: NR)

Either the Nationwide Series start (where he finished second) really helped his Cup program (where he finished seventh) or Menard just has Kansas figured out.

15.) Jamie McMurray (LW: 15)

It wasn’t the top-10s that the No. 1 team had been capable of reeling off the past few weeks but a 16th-place with a clean nose on a vile Kansas racing surface  isn’t something to be ignored.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Kyle Larson Leads the Youth Movement

By Matt Weaver: RIDGEWAY, VA — Kyle Larson’s Sprint Cup debut on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway signals the first wave of the next generation of talent that is soon to be injected into the sport. That list also includes the Dillon brothers, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott.

At 21 years old, Larson will be the youngest active Sprint Cup Series driver this season which has some questioning his readiness. Larson is perhaps best defined by his eagerness and aversion to nervousness and insists that he’s up to the challenge.

“I think I’m ready,” Larson told the media on Tuesday at a Sprint Cup test at Martinsville Speedway. “We went and tested last week and learned quite a bit and got our car better. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve ran quite a lot of laps (at Charlotte) with the Nationwide car and we’ll get a lot of laps in this weekend with us running both races.”

With so many young and talented drivers poised to make their Sprint Cup debuts, a veteran like Jeff Burton recognizes that Larson has the potential to change the complexion of the garage.

The Cup Series is heavy on veterans at the moment and Larson’s success or lack thereof, depending on what happens could dictate the sort of signings that car owners look to make in the future.

“They’ll come in packs,” Burton said of the youth explosion. “You’ll have a group come this year and then another in the following year and then it will slow down again. But all it takes is one young driver to do well and then every car owner will want a young driver.

“And all it takes is for one experienced guy to do well and everyone will want an experienced guy.”

So while it seems a foregone conclusion that the Dillon brothers, Elliott and Blaney will get their chance in the Sprint Cup Series, there is an entire generation just behind them that are depending on their predecessor’s success just to earn their own opportunities.

Larson will take his first green flag on Saturday at Charlotte — and with it the dreams of the entire next generation of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage.

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NASCAR Cup Series

“The Mayor” Holds Court at Martinsville

By Matt Weaver: RIDGEWAY, VA — Jeff Burton says that NASCAR created a sort of disconnect between a part of its fanbase when it began abandoning many of the short tracks at the national touring level.

Burton was amongst 11 Sprint Cup Series drivers who tested at Martinsville Speedway on Tuesday afternoon and explained that the sport could benefit from a return to the type of venues on which it was founded.

“I think we suffered a great deal when the Nationwide Series and Trucks quit coming to South Boston, quit going to Orange County Speedway and quit going to Hickory — quit going to those race tracks,” Burton said. “I think over time we lost the connection between the short track racing and the big time, we’ll call it.

“There seems to be such a difference between what local racers are doing and what we’re doing and don’t think that is necessarily good for the sport.”

Fans from a previous era were conditioned to NASCAR because it visually resembled what they could experience on any given Saturday night at their local short track. With the evolution of the sport to include so many intermediate speedways, the genuine stock car fan doesn’t recognize NASCAR as something comparable to what they enjoy and have turned away from NASCAR as a result.

“When we come to a place like this (Martinsviile), and a fan hasn’t watched a short track race from Orange County or a place like that, they don’t recognize this as the same the sport, and the younger fans don’t have a way to bridge the gap.

“I really think that hurts us as a sport, which is why I’ve been advocating for the last year that we should hold our All-Star Race on a short track — and I mean a real short track too.”

NASCAR appears to be receptive to a return to grassroots style racing at the national touring level as the Truck Series has competed on the dirt at Eldora Speedway this past summer while also flirting with rumored dates at Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina.

To Burton, short tracks represent the best of stock car racing and a discipline the sport has to return to.

“We need to bridge that gap,” he said. “And I’m sorry but the best racing is on the short tracks — and we need to take advantage of that.”

Burton closes in on Sprint Cup ride for next season

Jeff Burton says he is close to announcing a deal that will see him remain in the Sprint Cup Series next season — his 22nd season since debuting in 1993.

Burton is set to part ways with Richard Childress Racing at the end of the season to allow Ryan Newman to join that operation next year. Burton has been with the team since 2004 but appears set to join a new team in 2014.

“I actually have a lot of clarity (about my future plans) but I can’t talk about it yet,” Burton said. “I can almost talk about it but I just can’t. I don’t know when I’ll be able to but it will be a couple of weeks.

“A lot of stuff happened towards the end of last week up to yesterday so we’re getting real close to letting you know what’s going on but I’m just not at liberty to discuss it right now.”

Burton did however confirm that the deal was for the Sprint Cup Series.

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NASCAR Cup Series

A UNIQUE VIEW: Closing Thoughts

By Unique Hiram – Kansas Speedway definitely served up some interesting, action-packed thrills throughout the weekend. There was never a dull moment in “The Land of Oz.” While some drivers came out of the Midwest unscathed, a few others were dealt a hefty blow and were happy to put this race behind them for the season.

Here are some of the quotes from the weekend about “The Track that will Blow You Away”:

“We had a pretty crazy day today with a lot of cautions. The No. 15 team battled some handling issues early, but once we got some track position I thought we were pretty good. The 5-hour ENERGY Toyota had speed and we did a great job getting up toward the front, but as the weather and track conditions changed we struggled a little bit getting the car to turn in the center of the corner. I thought for sure we were going to come out of there with a top-five. That would have really helped us gain some ground in the points. It didn’t turn out that way, but we’ll take what we got and move on to Charlotte.” – Clint Bowyer

“We’ll just have to work hard. We’ll just have to keep dong what we’ve done and getting us to this point all year long and that’s been consistency. And every other track except Kansas seems to be able to bode well for us, so we’ll see what happens and if it doesn’t happen – then it doesn’t happen. It wasn’t meant to be.” – Kyle Busch

“Well for me it was like driving two different cars. You know we got that debris caution right as we pitted early and we got back in traffic and the car was just really tight. Then we got better as the cloud cover came over and we kind of found that middle line down there in Turns 1 and 2 and they kept me calm. I was starting to get a little bit wound up because I know we had a really fast car out front. It was just a matter of getting there at the end and caught a couple of those guys so it all came full circle and we were able to put our Budweiser Chevy up front and once we got to front that thing was just really fast.” – Kevin Harvick

“All in all it was just a crazy day. Weird restarts. Wacky restarts. A lot of chaos there. And then caution after caution for who knows what. These cautions kept coming out and they hurt us each time. So we rebounded from all that and passed a ton of race cars, and then on the last lap with I guess two to go, coming down the back, the car started shaking read bad and I thought it was over.” – Jimmie Johnson

“I feel lucky for not being wrecked. And I feel really fortunate to still be leading the points. It was not the day we wanted – both the last two weeks. We struggled a bit and still salvaged – it could have been worse – we could have been backed into the the fence. Proud of this team – they didn’t give up on me today. They worked really hard on it. We’ll go racing next week.” – Matt Kenseth

“We had a lot of gremlins here this weekend. We had a decent car and the 29 and 48 were probably the class of the field. One of them won, so I guess that is the way it should have worked. You know, it was a difficult up and down weekend unfortunately and we ended it on a negative note with something breaking in the back of the car with the fuel cell and we didn’t get the gas we needed to finish the race. Back to the drawing board I guess.” – Brad Keselowski

“It’s just a shame because we were having a better weekend. yesterday was a pretty good day for us. We felt really confident today that we were going to be able to have a good day. My pit road crew is so good I knew that was going to be something to look forward to . I’m really sorry. I’m really bummed I just was looking forward to having a good day and it’s over within a matter of feet.” – Danica Patrick

I think that it’s fair to say those who survived Kansas are happy and relieved.  Those who didn’t fare so well are looking forward to the next race in Charlotte.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Tony Stewart Has Third Surgery on Broken Right Leg

By Kelly Crandall – Tony Stewart underwent a successful third surgery on his broken right leg early Monday, said Stewart-Haas Racing in a release.

Stewart broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg August 5th in a sprint car accident in Iowa the Monday following the Sprint Cup Series race in Pocono. The injury has sidelined him for the remainder of the 2013 season as Max Papis, Austin Dillon and Mark Martin have filled the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet.

At the time of the accident, Stewart was sitting 11th in points and fighting for a Chase spot.

Monday’s surgery, nearly two months after the initial two surgeries, was called a “proactive measure” by the team and it is not expected to interfere or change Stewart’s return for the 2014 season. It was to examine and close a shin wound.

The first surgery the night of the accident was to stabilize and clean the leg before a second surgery two days later to insert a metal rod into the tibia.

Stewart had not been expecting to have any further surgeries and has since returned to the racetrack to watch over his three SHR cars.

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NASCAR Cup Series

“The Closer” Makes a Statement at Kansas

By Reid Spencer (KANSAS CITY, Kan.) — Kevin Harvick crashed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup party.

Kyle Busch simply crashed—at a track that continues to bedevil him.

And with a bizarre power failure in the last two laps, Johnson failed to cash in decisively on Matt Kenseth’s skittishness with the new tire combination Goodyear brought to Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

The fourth race in the Chase ended as it began, with Harvick out front. The driver of the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet crossed the finish line more than a football field ahead of runner-up Kurt Busch, with Jeff Gordon trailing Busch in third.

Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Johnson ran third through sixth, respectively, allowing Johnson to trim Kenseth’s advantage in the championship standings from eight to three points.

The victory was Harvick’s third of the season, his first at Kansas and the 22nd of his career. With the win, Harvick moved into third place in the standings, 25 points behind Kenseth. Kyle Busch, who entered the race third in the Chase and 12 points behind Kenseth, scored his third straight DNF at Kansas after crashing out in 34th place and dropping to fifth in points, 35 out of the lead.

“To sit on the pole and win the race, obviously, is a great weekend,” Harvick said. “Controlling our own destiny by doing that, putting ourselves closer to where we need to be with the championship race… so we’ll just keep having fun and doing what we’re doing.

Harvick’s car out front in clean air was radically different than the same car in traffic.

“It was like driving two different cars,” said Harvick, who will leave RCR at the end of the year to driver for Stewart-Haas Racing. “Out front, it was not even close, and in traffic, you were just another one of the cars and had a lot of trouble.”

After Harvick got shuffled back in traffic by an inopportune debris caution on Lap 87, crew chief Gil Martin opted to keep him out on old tires under caution for a wreck involving Justin Allgaier and Ryan Newman on Lap 146.

The move paid off, and Harvick was able to stay in position near the front of the field for the balance of the race.

Johnson likewise had a strong car but couldn’t get the track position he need to make a run at the win. He felt a strong vibration in his car with two laps left, but the car regained power on the backstretch of the final lap and Johnson held sixth at the finish.

“All in all, it was just a crazy day,” said the five-time champion, who lost fifth place to Edwards on the final lap. “There were weird restarts, wacky restarts, a lot of chaos there. Then caution after caution for who knows what…

“We rebounded from all that, passed a lot of race cars, and then with two to go, we came down the back and started shaking real bad. I thought it was over, but I limped it around and got to the finish line. It started running down the back coming to the checkered (flag), so I was at least able to maintain over whoever was in seventh there (Paul Menard).”

Kyle Busch’s championship hopes suffered most, but no driver seemed immune from adversity. Gordon, Johnson, Busch and Harvick all lost positions—and in some cases, laps—when cautions interrupted cycles of green-flag pit stops.

But the record 15 cautions for a record 71 laps—one because of a grass fire on the bank outside Turn 1 that shrouded the track in smoke–provided ample opportunity for wave-arounds and restarts that allowed drivers to make up lost ground.

With a loose handling condition that plagued him throughout the race, Kenseth salvaged an 11th-place run that kept him at the top of the standings—barely.

Throughout the weekend, Kenseth expressed uneasiness with a lack of grip he felt with the dual-tread right-side tire Goodyear provided for the race. Nevertheless, with a manic drive through traffic during the final 19-lap green-flag run, Kenseth gained four positions after the final restart to retain his points lead.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Power Rankings: The Fast Fifteen

By Matt Weaver – With Jimmie Johnson winning at Dover on Sunday afternoon, it firmly established that the No. 48 team will be a player for the remainder of the Chase for the Championship. It also moved him two spots from third to first in the Fast 15 Power Rankings after Matt Kenseth finished seventh in his bid to win three consecutive playoff races.

The complete updated list can be found below.

1.) Jimmie Johnson (LW: 3)

It’s not hard to envision a scenario where his Dover victory leads to a sixth Sprint Cup championship. This is especially true given his strength on plate tracks this season (Talladega) and his traditional might at Martinsville and Charlotte.

2.) Matt Kenseth (LW: 1)

The fact that a seventh-place finish at Dover feels like a disappointment to the No. 20 team has to be disheartening for his Chase competition.

3. Kyle Busch (LW: 2)

With a worse finish of fifth in the three Chase races, Kyle Busch is only third in the standings. Incredible.

4.) Jeff Gordon (LW: 9)

His pit road gaffe at New Hampshire looms even larger after another good finish on Sunday at Dover. Gordon needs to close out if he has any designs on completing the Drive for Five this season. The guy most said didn’t belong in the Chase has worked his way up to fourth in the standings.

5.) Kevin Harvick (LW: 13)

True to form, Kevin Harvick continues to hang around in striking distance of the championship after three races. Can “The Closer” return the Sprint Cup to Richard Childress Racing in typical dramatic fashion?

6.) Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 7)

At 57 points back, NASCAR’s most popular driver is certainly a long shot to win the Championship. But his string of recent good finishes has restore faith and excitement to his eager fan base for what may be a sign to come.

7.) Joey Logano

It was a good rebound week for the Penske youth, finishing third in his first top-10 in the Chase. His milestone Nationwide Series victory at Dover on Saturday helped too — both his personal confidence and his team’s owner championship hopes.

8.) Greg Biffle (LW: 8)

It was a solid but unspectacular day for Greg Biffle in his follow-up to finishing third at New Hampshire. That remains the theme for the No. 16’s season where they’ve maximized the value of their cars but have likely been hindered by Ford’s struggles this season.

9.) Ryan Newman (LW: 10)

It was “just a day” for Ryan Newman whom finished eighth and maintained the seventh spot in the Chase standings, now 48 markers behind Matt Kenseth for the top spot.

10.) Kurt Busch (LW: 5)

The changes to Kurt Busch’s over-the-wall pit crew did not make that much of a difference on Sunday at Dover as the No. 78 just couldn’t overtake and finished in P21.

11.) Clint Bowyer (LW: 11)

Bowyer finished 10th on Sunday at Dover which was solid and was no doubt delighted to learn that 5-Hour Energy will remain with him and Michael Waltrip Racing next season.

12.) Brad Keselowski (LW: 6)

“We’re getting all this bad luck out of the way this year, so watch out next year.” Mechanical failure. Finished P37.

13.) Sam Hornish Jr. (LW: 12)

Survived to finish 17th on Saturday in the Nationwide Series race at Dover. That combined with so-so finishes from his closest rivals keeps him in charge of the championship in the closing stages.

14.) Carl Edwards (LW: 4)

It seemed that Edwards was destined to make a late season charge at the Sprint Cup championship before a mechanical problem befell him on Sunday at Dover.

15.) Jamie McMurray (LW: 14)

The highest non-Chaser in the championship standings, McMurray has finished fifth and 11th the past two weeks and very much looks like he could steal a victory from the championship leaders before the season concludes.

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NASCAR Cup Series

First Third Chase Results Confirm: 3-man Race for Chase

By Vito Pugliese – With the first quarter of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup in the books, there has been a familiar refrain from within those in NASCAR media and Pundit Junction: are we down to a three-man race? Is the Championship going to be contested among three drivers? Is it going to be a three-man contest from here on out? “Never” they cried! “Heresy! There are at least five or seven drivers who are in contention for the Cup!”

Guess what? It’s a three-man race.

Sorry to be the one to rain their Chicagoland-esque parade, but there’s a reason why the three-man theory has become so popular since JJ went JJ and won his eighth race at the Monster Mile, breaking a tie between him, Bobby Allison, and Richard Petty. Granted, Bobby and The King won races there that were 500 miles, but had they tacked on another 100 circuits Sunday, it would only have meant that less than 12 cars would have finished on the lead lap.

Why am I so certain it is a three-man show? Take a gander below and let me walk you through it….

13th  Kasey Kahne: It’s a Bad News/Good News situation for Kahne. Bad News: So far he’s barely averaging a 20th place finish three races in. Good News: He’s stopped talking to his driving mittens and Nomex booties following his impact into the not-soft-at-all inside retaining wall at Loudon two weeks ago. Has yet to outrun any of the Top Five drivers in points, and the No. 5 is clearly not receiving any special attention over the 48 and 88.

12th Joey Logano: The No. 22 team made it into The Chase courtesy of some creative bargaining with the No. 38 team at Richmond – or maybe David Gilliland’s foot was getting tired. Either way, the double deuce has been doubly disappointing, being the team car to the 2012 defending champion. However the Penske pilot is trending upward; finishes of 37th, 14th, and now third at Dover indicate that there is speed in their Ford Fusions. It will still take a win for him to get back into the conversation. Oh and Matt Kenseth won here at Kansas in April. No biggie.

11th Carl Edwards: Carl Edwards and the No. 99 team seemed to be peaking just at the right time going into the Chase. He was leading at Bristol before being sidelined with engine issues, and rallied to win Richmond. An 11th at Chicago and barely eking out a top 10 at Loudon was not the start he and Jimmy Fennig were looking for. A busted hub late in the going at Dover really put a crimp their plans, and given their last two runs at 1.5-mile tracks, the 11th at Chicago and 18th in Atlanta, don’t bode well going into corn country.

10th Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: It was good on Sunday to see the No. 88 up front, competitive, and in the game the whole race. Well, except that part when Junior blew the entrance to pit road and gave up about 10 seconds on the track. Considering how he also plowed into the back of Dave Blaney on pit road at Chicago, he’s either trying too hard or still struggling to regain the form that saw him as the driver to beat almost 10 years ago in the 2004 Chase. You can bet they have Talladega circled on the schedule, and that’s a safe bet for win in the next seven races.

9th Kurt Busch: The car was out to lunch again Sunday, and the Kurt Radio Show was showing signs of making an impromptu comeback. This is basically a 15th-place single-car team, with a Championship-winning driver willing it to do more than it’s capable of on a consistent basis. Besides, with the driver leaving at season’s end and the parent operation with their own car in the championship fight, how much support are they really going to get being 2,000 miles away?

8th Clint Bowyer: The driver and team that lit the match that nearly blew up the NASCAR world – and potentially MWR – is 8th in points, 53 markers back. Bowyer is going back to his home state this weekend, and with the turmoil and controversy that has surrounded him the last month, a homecoming might do him some good. Not sure it’s going to let him to topple the top Toyotas though.

7th Ryan Newman: Actually kind of surprised he’s still up this far. The No. 39 team is 48 poinra back, with finishes of 10th, 16th, and 8th, along with a pole at New Hampshire. Their points position is more a function of just not having anything disastrous happen – yet. That will only work for a few weeks however; may start to tumble shortly.

6th Greg Biffle: It seems to be feast or famine for the 16 team. Either they’re in contention for a win, or they’re struggling to hang onto the lead lap. Have to admire Biffle’s optimism and outlook however. Has a Kansas win on fuel (barely) in 2007, and whenever he starts publically saying that Ford has some speed coming shortly, he always delivers.

5th Kevin Harvick: They call him “The Closer”, however I think the 29 is about to get taken deep into left field. Third at Chicago, 20th at Loudon, hung around for a sixth at Dover. Doesn’t have the speed to outrun the 18, 20, and 48 week in and out, and Harvick has a tendency to get snippy when the chips are down.

4th: Jeff Gordon: Not too shabby for a guy who hasn’t won a race this year, and showed how to use social media to one’s advantage. The 24 has lead laps in every Chase race and has been a Top 5 car, despite a stumble at Loudon. With the luck this group has had this year, I feel it’s about to rear that ugly mug again and stymie their momentum. Sorry fellas — but these things tend to follow a pattern for an entire season.

3rd Kyle Busch: Here we go – the first of the true contenders. Four regular season wins and Chase finishes of 2nd, 2nd, and 5th, Kyle Busch is in the best position to make a run for the title he’s ever been in. He has two major issues to overcome however: one, his teammate, who is ridiculously fast and unflappable. Second, himself. Took every fiber of his being to keep from going off after Dover, still gets bent about finishing second in Trucks or Nationwide. But hey, that’s what makes him Rowdy and has got him this far, so who am I to judge?

2nd Jimmie Johnson: Can Jimmie Johnson be beat? Absolutely – ask Brad Keselowksi. Can he be rattled and knocked off his game? Kurt seemed to do so in 2011 (but he never said that). Will he be beaten this year? I don’t know man – it’s creepy how calm he is, he’s got that weird beard in effect again, and he just dropped $14.5 mil on a condo. Pretty sure he’s just going to do whatever he feels like and the other 12 are just going to have to deal with it.

1st Matt Kenseth: This one has been building all year, and I  have a feeling that even as successful as this 20 team has been all season, it’s about to blow up. And by that I don’t mean rods sticking out of blocks, but something like a three-race win streak where they put this thing to bed for good in short order. Irony of ironies, the Chase was created to help prevent a repeat of his one-win 2003 Championship season, is about to get bulldozed with the most wins in the series, currently at seven. The Green Bay Packers might be choking early on in the season, but Wisconsin’s other mainstay is about to do a daable-check on a second Cup Series title.