Leading the series standings at the end of the first twenty-six races, Tony Stewart and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team seemed to stumble out of the gate during the first two races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. A fourteenth at Loudon and a ninth last weekend at Dover put Stewart fifth in the standings, 106 points behind Mark Martin, when he rolled off fifth for Sunday's Price Chopper 400 at the Kansas Speedway.
In an event in which there were a record number of lead changes - 26 among 14 different drivers - Stewart led five times for thirty-seven laps. Running up front for much of the afternoon, the race came down to a final round of pit stops with less than thirty laps to go. With fuel mileage out of the window, the decision that made the difference was tires.
Greg Biffle had dominated the latter stages of the race on two tires, but on the final stop the 16 crew opted for four fresh tires. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Stewart's crew chief Darian Grubb called for only two tires and sent his driver off pit road with the lead.
Never doubting his crew chief's call, Stewart went to work holding off the charge. "Darian, you just don't question him," Stewart explained. "When he makes a call you know it's the right thing to do and you go from there."
One of only three cars to take two tires only, Stewart took the outside line on the restart and pulled away from the field as they battled for position behind him. As Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson dropped back with only two tires, Stewart began to set sail.
As the laps wound down the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon took advantage of his four fresh Goodyears and began to close in on the back bumper of Stewart. Able to close the gap, Gordon simply ran out of time as Stewart scored his fourth win of the season, second at Kansas Speedway and first of the Chase.
"I got to thank the fans," Stewart said after doing a Polish Victory Lap. "That's the best feeling in the world when you win a race, go back there and see them like that, how supportive they are, especially this sport in general."
Taking the win, Stewart climbed back into contention for the Chase. Entering the day over one hundred points out of the lead, Stewart leaves Kansas fourth in the Chase just sixty-seven marks out of first.
"That's about half of where we were," the two-time series champion said of his Chase outlook. "We still got a shot, we got a great shot at this still."
Finishing second, Jeff Gordon showed his team could overcome adversity and are not willing to give up their Chase hopes just yet. Starting the day from the ninth spot, Gordon and his No. 24 team led by Steve Letarte struggled with the handling of the car. Refusing to five up, the team went to work and put Gordon in contention late in the going by getting him off pit road fast with four tires.
Moving past teammate Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle, Gordon set his sights on Stewart for the win, but came up just short. Earning his best finish since his third-place run in Richmond, the four-time champ jumped up a spot to seventh in the standings, 103 points behind Mark Martin.
"We came a long ways," Gordon said on pit road after the race. "That shows what kind of great team we have. We were really far off at the beginning of this race. The funny thing is all weekend long when the balance wasn't right the speed was still decent."
Coming home in the third-spot was a great day for Greg Biffle and the entire Roush Fenway Racing team, but it wasn't what they had hoped for. Dominating the race after using pit strategy to gain track position, Biffle led six times for a race-high 113 laps. The No. 16 Ford was best on two tires, but when the field hit pit road for the final time of the day Biffle made the call to take four.
Starting the race fourth, Biffle was too loose on four tires and was never able to mount a serious challenge for the lead.
"I felt like - (Greg) Erwin wanted to do two at the end and I really thought four tires was the right call," Biffle said following his best finish since Bristol six weeks ago. "It was just too loose on four tires. Had a great race with some of those guys out there today. Feel good about getting up front and running hard. Just feel so bad I didn't get the win - a thorn in the side. Just too loose to put the gas down at the end and got beat."
After leading early, both Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin seemed to lose the handle on the track as the race progressed. Johnson led five times for fifty-three laps en route to a ninth-place finish. Martin's car seemed to come alive in the final section of the race, allowing him to climb to seventh when the checkered flag fell.
Fellow Chase contender Juan Pablo Montoya continued his consistently strong runs on Sunday, leading only one lap but coming home in fourth. Montoya cut into Martin's Chase lead and is now only fifty-seven marks behind Mark.
Brian Vickers' Chase hopes took a turn for the worse at Kansas as a 37th-place finish ruined this team's Cinderella story. Edging out Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth to make their first Chase, Vickers struggled the first two events and Sunday's performance seemed to end their chance at a title. The No. 83 brought out the fourth caution of the day when Vickers spun the car off Turn 4. Things went from bad to worse for Team Red Bull when the engine went sour, ending their day early.
Next week the Chase heads to the always dull Auto Club Speedway. Attendance at the 2-mile track in Fontana, California has been a disappointment for years and the hope is the excitement of the Chase will put fans in the stands. Racing has been lackluster and whether or not this track deserves to be in the Chase should be a subject of debate going forward, but continued appeals to the California market will override the product on the track.
Things are really starting to shape up in terms of the Chase with Martin, Johnson and Montoya as the lead contenders. That being said, there is a lot of racing left and Stewart, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Gordon, and Biffle could be right up there after a great run or a slip up by one of the front-runners. Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne are long-shots, but not out of it yet, while Vickers' chances seem to be gone.
One of the closest Chases in years, the next seven races are sure to see hard racing and eventually more than one Chase contender will fall. Be sure to check back to Your NASCAR News each week to follow the news all Chase long.