Ryan McGee, ESPN.com
Chase reset adds playoff intrigue
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – NASCAR's not in Kansas anymore.
OK, actually that's exactly where it is. But like Dorothy and her friends, this visit to the Kansas Speedway is a stroll into a new, strange world. It doesn't feel like any of the previous 17 races here. In fact, it doesn't feel like any other Sprint Cup race. Like, ever. Sunday's 400-miler is the first event to follow the first-ever in-Chase cutoff race. One week ago there were 16 Chase contenders, but now four of those teams are gone. The dozen remaining survivors have been wadded back together, the point standings reset and all even for the first time since the season started at Daytona more than half a year ago.
Won a race? Struggled? Lived somewhere in between? Doesn't matter. The playing field has been leveled, for better or for worse. For some it's much better. For others it's worse.
"I think this format perfectly suits our situation in that we haven't been the dominant car all year, but right now we are tied with guys like Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon," said Carl Edwards, who ended the opening three-race Challenger Round with an 11th-place run at Dover, fighting to stay in the top 10 of the championship standings. Now he's tied for first with those race winners he mentioned.
"We have an opportunity now to make something happen, and if I were those guys I would be frustrated. But right now we are going to take advantage of this."
"Those guys" – the three race winners from the opening Challenger Round (the other being Joey Logano) – are admittedly bummed about being pushed back into the pack they'd worked so hard to be separated from. But they also know that what they did to win before is what will still keep them winning going forward. No bracket can derail that. Well, in theory, anyway.
"It's just so different than anything we've had before," explained two-decade veteran Gordon, who won last weekend at Dover. "The mindset is very different. But the goal isn't really any different than before. Run up front and win races and all the other stuff should take care of itself."
Then the four-time champion laughed: "Emphasis on 'should.'"
The group just behind those winners comes to Kansas feeling pleased but not satisfied. Their consistent Challenger Round efforts didn't see them visit Victory Lane but resulted in enough solid finishes to feel like there is momentum to build on for these next three and beyond. Solid finishes won't be enough as the grid narrows over the next seven weeks.
"In some ways I look at the Chase environment now and think that it could be more forgiving in situations. The way the first round went for us, it was forgiving," said Jimmie Johnson, who finished a good-not-great 12th, fifth and third in the Challenger Round. "The importance of winning as the Chase goes on and on gets higher and higher. When you get to Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix (the Eliminator Round), you need to be knocking on that door – if not, be the guy standing in Victory Lane and then certainly going to Homestead [the season finale]. That's the goal."
Then there's that third group, those who walked into the Kansas garage with the unmistakable look of relief. They spent the first round toeing the edge of the Chase canyon entirely too close for comfort. The front-runners might be quietly bitter about the clean slate, but those who flirted with that edge are happily embracing a second lease on their postseason lives.
"Absolutely, we didn't do too well these first three races so the reset button is in favor of our team," admitted Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had warned his fans that the first three Chase tracks weren't exactly his best facilities. He proved prophetic, finishing 11th, ninth and 17th, continuing a so-so slump that's seen him finish outside the top 10 in six of the eight races since winning at Pocono on Aug. 3. "This gives us an opportunity to sort of get back into the championship battle. Had they not structured it so, I don't know that we would be feeling too confident about chances at this point."
Everyone's level of confidence for the remainder of the Chase, no matter which group they belonged to entering the weekend, will hinge greatly on where they are when this race is over. A whopping four of the remaining seven races, including two of the three in this new round, are held on 1.5-mile ovals. That starts with the Kansas Speedway. How a team runs here is likely a huge indicator of how they will perform the remainder of the postseason.
"These are our bread-and-butter racetracks," said Logano, who won at the Texas Motor Speedway earlier this year. "You look at that Chase schedule and there they all sit, especially that last race at Homestead. So yeah, if you were to just miss it and have a terrible run at Kansas that would lead to some sleepless nights over the next couple of months."
There will be plenty of those to go around, regardless of the cause. But for now, in the days and hours leading up to the green flag at Kansas and this new world of this new round in this new Chase, there's much more optimism in the garage than worrying.
"Now it's all back to zero," said Earnhardt. "We can regroup and get confident again. Come out of here with a great finish and we are back in it."