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The chase tightens up, with Biffle and Stewart fighting back into contention, as NASCAR heads to LA

  Now that's a burnout! Greg Biffle smokes 'em at Kansas, and the Sprint Cup championship playoffs take a dramatic twist (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   KANSAS CITY, Kansas  

   The Sprint Cup title chase tightened considerably here Sunday, with Greg Biffle winning and strong runs by Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, and an amazing comeback by Jimmie Johnson, and an off-performance by Denny Hamlin.

   And even after regaining the top spot in the stock car racing standings, after such a poor start to the Kansas 400, Johnson was wary here post-race.
   He warns the Talladega wild card still loom.
   Now the Talladega 500 is still three weeks off, with California, Charlotte and Martinsville between now and then.
   But Johnson insists it's still much too early to be relishing grabbing the points lead away from Hamlin.
   "After Talladega, teams and drivers can work on a strategy of protecting or taking chances," Johnson says. "We have to get deeper into the chase to be concerned about who the points leader is.
    "It's early. I'm not worried about who is leading the championship right now. I know we came in second. I could care less where Denny was.  It's just not time to worry about that stuff."
    Indeed, just when even Biffle was about to write off his title hopes, because of that untimely caution at Dover, Del., last week, suddenly he finds himself right back in the game.
   Johnson himself showed just how topsy-turvy the playoffs are, just three races in to the 10-week chase. He fell far off the pace, back into the 30s, with handling problems early Sunday, but then rallied late. And he in part blamed his own poor qualifying run Friday; he started 21st, but it was the bad pit selection he was left with that played a role in his problems too.
   "Just can't put your guard down: It doesn't matter if it's qualifying or the race," Johnson says.
   "That first pit stop, we were pitting behind Denny, and Patrick Carpentier was still on the lead lap...so we got pinned in.
   "From then on our goal was to get in front of Denny -- If we could be on pit road in front of him, I could at least get my car angled out and get out of the pit box."
   The poor qualifying run, problems in Saturday practice, changes to be made Sunday morning, Johnson said "leads to a sleepless night and a frustrating morning. We had anxious moments before the race, not knowing how the car is going to drive. 
    "With everything that's on the line, you can't just take blind guesses, you've got to make a decision.
    "In Dover we had that – and made the right decisions (winning in fact).  This weekend we did it too."
    Eventually. But it took a long time Sunday.
    And Johnson wasn't the only guy having handling issues. Whether it was Goodyear's choice of tires, or this track starting to get 'character' with age, Johnson said his car never felt comfortable.
   "It just never was 'in' the race track," Johnson said. "Felt like cold tires all day long. 
    "I saw a lot of guys fighting the same issue.  I think this tire certainly threw us for a loop."
   But not for Biffle, who sprinted away down the stretch for a surprising seven-second lead at the finish, and not for Stewart, who led 76 laps and showed one of the best cars in the field on the first mid-sized track in the playoffs. If Biffle and Stewart are this strong at California, Charlotte and Texas, they could well be players in the Homestead finale.
    With seven playoff races left this fall, Stewart is 127 points down.
    "I just couldn't take off on restarts...and I couldn't get going in traffic," Stewart said of his late-race issues that left him a disappointed fourth.
    "We'd get about 10 laps into it and it would be fast. We just gave up too much time up front."
   At least Stewart and the Darian Grubb team appear going in the right direction....after too many struggles this season. "We've been a better team than we finished these last two weeks," Stewart said. "We just had bad luck the first race (Loudon, N.H.), and then just a bad day the second race (Dover, Del.)
    "Hopefully the upcoming weeks will be like this."
    And Kevin Harvick? He too was hampered early in the race because of his poor starting position.
   On top of that  "I had a lot of trouble on restarts," the regular season champion said, after his struggles, and a late race comeback to finish third. "We had to get through the first three or four laps. I was just hanging on."
   Harvick's teammates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer didn't fare as well. Burton had a solid contender much of the day but faded late to a very disappointing 18th. Bowyer had a miserable day, running far in the back, though pulling off a 15th. Bowyer and team owner Richard Childress are currently in NASCAR's doghouse, for not heeding some private warnings from officials about their Richmond car being 'too close' the border line on rear end tolerances. Childress' final appeal of the championship-killing 150-point penalty for flunking post-race inspection after winning Loudon is to be heard this week by NASCAR's final arbitrar, John Middlebrook.
   Middlebrook is the well-known former General Motors executive who was key in that company's racing operations for many years, until retiring two years ago. While some might sense a conflict of interest in a former GM man standing in judgment of one of Chevrolet's top NASCAR operations, Middlebrook's credentials are impeccable.
   In fact, some are looking at this case to see just how Middlebrook – a no-nonsense man when at GM – looks at his new role. While appeals to this level are quite rare, Middlebrook has an opportunity to make a statement here – whether to rubber-stamp that appeals board 'guilty' verdict, or to chart new territory and raise other issues....perhaps even the 'common sense' issue of how effect NASCAR rules are if it takes inspectors more than three days after the race to determine just how 'legal' the winner's car is.

  An off-day by Denny Hamlin set the stage for Sunday's dramatics (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Back to Bowyer...

If Clint Bowyer's car was deemed "illegal" then why award him with the win? It's the most basic of questions with no answer. Other than an embarrassment to sponsors, with victory lane pics and the hoopla, it seems more embarrassing to a sport on basic issues like this. Next time you win Clint, be sure to do a doughnut and smacked the wall. Let's see how NASCAR measures that.

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