That ain't the way to have fun. Matt Kenseth's title hopes all but vanish in a cloud of smoke (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
It was a terrible Sunday afternoon for Ford's top two, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, and their championship hopes this season appear all but dead.
Biffle, 33 points down at the start of the Dover 400, is now 51 down heading this week to Talladega. The most a driver can pick up in one race is 48 points.
Kenseth is now even further down, 72 points behind, after a rear suspension piece broke 90 miles from the end, eventually putting him behind the wall 35th.
Ironically third teammate Carl Edwards, who didn't make the playoffs, pulled out a surprising fifth, in the gas mileage finish.
"We didn't deserve to finish that far forward, but we had some lucky breaks and my guys did a good job on pit road," Edwards said after his best finish since March.
"It seemed like all of us struggled. We've got to understand exactly what we're missing."
Biffle was sizzling mad with his crew after a loose tire on a pit stop.
"It's tough... It happened to us in 2005 right toward the end of the chase (a loose lug nut in the Texas 500) and it cost us the title.
"But I don't think that loose wheel today is going to cost us the championship. We were off a little bit, but we were definitely a top-10 car, probably top-eight, the way it ended up.
"We were in great position. So to finish where we did, and have that happen, is pretty remarkable.
"But that really kind of takes us out of the title hunt.
"We really needed to finish in the top three here to really be a factor. Now we'll just work on being in the top-10."
So it's over?
"Well, it's pretty much a stretch for us right now," Biffle said. "We would have to have a lot of help at Talladega and a few other race tracks to try and leapfrog back in.
"The thing is there are so many guys ahead of us; it's not like there are two or three we need to catch up to, it's a whole mess of them.
"It's a pretty tall order to beat all of those guys by six positions seven races in a row."
Biffle's frustration was obvious.
"The tire changer knew automatically," he said of the loose lug. "I saw him know the right-front was loose.
"That would have got us one lap back...which would have got us about 10 points or so. So we gave up an extra six, eight or 10 points."
Kenseth's frustration level was just as high, maybe higher. After the suspension piece broke, his crew tried to fix it, and sent him back out on the track, only to have it break again.
"In two out of three chase races something either fell off or broke, so obviously that's not good," Kenseth said.
"Our performance hasn't been very good either. Today was a struggle.
"This is probably the worst we've run here for as long as I can remember. We just really missed it. From the first lap on the track to the last lap on the track we were pretty much junk."
On the other side of the picture, in more ways than one, is the Brad Keselowski-Roger Penske team, with crew chief Paul Wolfe, now with Dodge, but just for the next seven weeks.
Penske's new five-year contract with Ford starts at the end of this season, and he will then be teammate with Jack Roush, even using Roush-Yates engines.
Penske, after the win, was quick to dedicate the win to Chris Economaki, the noted motorsports journalist who just died, at 91.
"I go back probably 45 years with him, when I was a driver...and used to take his photos home from the track," Penske said.
"I remember one thing about him -- he cared about the little guy running on the short tracks.
"I can't thank him enough for what he did for us. I know he'd be proud today to know that Penske Racing team is dedicating this race to him."
The win was not without incident for Keselowski. Midway through it he had a slow pit stop when the jack jammed. And he came back on the track, under green, just a few car lengths ahead of Kyle Busch, who was dominating the race.
Keselowski not only stayed ahead of Busch, to remain on the lead lap and in contention, he even stretched that margin.
"Coming back, you could see how fast the car was," Penske said. "For me to see him be able to stay ahead of Kyle, and run laps like that, we understood we had the speed. You couldn't show that at the end, because we wanted to make sure we didn't have to come in and pit like the other guys (for more fuel).
"Smart racing: I think Brad's ability to get through the traffic,... you watch Jimmie Johnson, Gordon, Kyle Busch and Hamlin, he's right up there with them. He didn't make any mistakes. Didn't lose any time on the track."
Keselowski knew that stretch was key: "That run to me was one of the most important runs of the day, with the exception of the last one, because it showed we had a strong car -- that in equal footing, equal track position, we could run just as fast if not faster than the lead group."
However, despite two wins in the first three playoff races, Keselowski insists he's not going to get ahead of himself:
"There are seven races to go. It feels great to win; I'm so proud of my team. But I can't state loudly enough how much longer this battle is.
"It's very tempting... whether it's the media or the teams themselves... to get in a comfort zone of saying 'Such and such has control of this chase.'
"But there's a reason why it's 10 rounds.
"We're not even halfway. We're three rounds in.
"|By no means do I feel like we're the favorite. There is so much racing to go, so many opportunities for things to go wrong ? or right ? for anyone out there."
For example, Keselowski points to himself and this very race: "Everybody said Dover was going to be our weakness.
"I didn't believe it. We felt we could come here to win."
Still, not till the closing 40 miles or so did it appear that Keselowski had a real shot at this win.
And that early untimely yellow, just as most of the teams had just pitted under green, threw a wrench in everyone's plans.
Wolfe: "I was definitely surprised -- especially with the wave?around rules -- that it never cycled back around (with more drivers getting back on the lead lap and back into contention).
"I thought once some cautions fell in the right time, guys would wave around and get more cars back on the lead lap.
"It was definitely a different race than we've seen in a while.
"We look at the whole race and how it's playing out, in the decisions we make: when we're going to pit, when we're not.
"Definitely with only seven cars on the lead lap at one point, six cars at one point, changes our strategy...what risks we're willing to take.
"You got to monitor the race really hard."
And it looks like Wolfe may be the new master at that. Twice now in the chase Wolfe and Keselowski have taken the measure of Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. And that may be very, very telling....