Topsy-turvy Chase should keep fans -- and drivers -- on the edge of their seats

Updated: September 26, 2008, 2:19 PM ET

AP Photo/Jim Cole

Things didn't go so hot for Kyle Busch at Loudon.

Start Your Engines

So that's how fast things change in the Chase. Everyone had it figured out a week ago. Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and their collective nine-race winning streak would march right into the Chase, with the other nine playoff qualifiers fighting for "best of the rest" status.

Not so much. Oh, Johnson and Edwards are still right there, finishing second and third, respectively, at Sunday's Chase kickoff race in New Hampshire to sit atop the standings in a virtual tie (Edwards getting first based on season wins, a tiebreaker that shouldn't matter as the Chase continues). But Busch fell off the map, finishing 34th and losing a points cushion that was nearly seven months in the making. He's eighth, 74 points behind Edwards and Johnson.

Enter Greg Biffle, picking a fine time for his first win of the season. He moved from the no-bonus-points basement to third place in his Roush Fenway Ford, 30 points off the lead, and became the example -- for this week -- of what flicking the switch in the Chase can do for one's hopes.

"We see it in the sport -- there's always peaks and valleys, and guys always seem to peak either before or during the Chase," said Denny Hamlin, ninth at New Hampshire to maintain his sixth-place points position for Joe Gibbs Racing.

"There's nine other guys in the Chase that are thinking, 'We have something to prove, so let's go test and let's figure out what we have to do to beat these guys.'

"Jimmie [Johnson] wasn't even an issue until two or three months ago and then he did a lot of testing and picked up his program. It could happen for any of the other guys that are in. Greg [Biffle] is starting to run strong, and I feel like we're coming into our own coming off of a couple of top-10 finishes."

Who's going to be the next unexpected Chase mover, and will that move be up or down? Will the status quo of Johnson and Edwards continue at Dover, Del., for the Camping World RV 400 (2 p.m. ET, ABC)? Or will Busch pick himself up at a track where he won in June?

It can seem obsessive to get so transfixed on the week-to-week shakeups -- "I think it's important to understand that, you know, this is a 10-week stretch; so much happens," Jeff Burton said -- but that's just how the Chase is.

Over 10 weeks, one can have a mulligan and the standings will pretty much even out. But when you take that mulligan in Week 1, as Busch just did, it's easy to panic. We'd say the Shrub was doing that to a degree, with how he dodged reporters after New Hampshire with a nimbleness he would've loved to have in that day's car.

"I'm surprised to see him that far back," Biffle said. "But that can happen with the Chase. We all know that. That's what hurts so bad when we were trying to get in the Chase. We're leading at Darlington, had a problem, finished 43rd. You know, you take such a hit in the points when you finish dead last. It's unbelievable how fast you can fall."

It happens to early Chase success stories, too. Kevin Harvick won at New Hampshire two years ago to start his first playoff, only to blow an engine at Dover and finish 32nd, plummeting from first place and never to return in that Chase. All we know is that we know nothing, after we thought we knew it all a week ago.

"It's just too early to be, you know, deciding who is going to win and who is not going to win. It's just way too early," said Burton, himself only 50 points out of first after a fourth at Loudon for Richard Childress Racing. "There's three drivers that everybody picked: It's one of those three drivers that is going to win the Chase. I think people are crazy to think that. I know they're the ones that deserve the consideration, for sure, based on what they've done. But people who watch racing ought to remember that two races out of 10 can completely ruin a guy's chance to win a championship.

"So you just never know what's going to happen. You have to take one race at a time. Pay attention to one race at a time."

We are. That's what makes it so difficult. And delightful.

Rocket Man

Greg Biffle: "Cinderella" is too strong a term for the driver of the No. 16 Roush Fenway Ford, with his being a past Chaser (runner-up in 2005) and a 12-time winner coming into the playoff. But did anyone think the Edwards/Johnson/Busch victory triangle would be broken immediately in the Chase, much less by one of the five playoff drivers who had yet to win in 2008?

"I knew if we made the Chase we were gonna be a threat to win the title. Certainly we've made a statement in the first race of the Chase," Biffle said after Sunday's win at New Hampshire.

There's no reason to stop favoring Edwards and Johnson, or Busch if he bounces back this week, but Biffle is at least in the conversation now. And his fall record isn't bad -- he won at Kansas (the next stop after Dover) in 2007 and three consecutive years (2004-06) at Homestead.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Standings

You Gotta See This

Slippery Slope

Gordon

Jeff Gordon: On the surface, a 14th-place day at New Hampshire isn't awful, but when nine Chasers finish in front of you -- and you were starting at the bottom of the reset points already -- you're not going anywhere in the standings. Gordon dropped another 19 points further from first place and sits 11th.

"We were better than 14th place. Just fought hard. It was a great fight by our team, kinda the way our season has been," Gordon said. "The results don't show for it."

Fine, but that refrain will have to change soon or the three-man Hendrick Motorsports Chase contingent essentially will dwindle to two.

Going The Wrong Way

Kenseth

Matt Kenseth: A week ago, he said his team needed a lot of improvement to be any kind of a factor in the championship. After crashing out in 39th place Sunday in what Kenseth called a slow No. 17 Ford, there's still room for improvement. But the championship is out of reach now, as he sits 177 points out of first and looking up at the entire Chase field.

It's worth remembering how he got here, though. Kenseth wasn't even in the top 20 after 10 races yet mounted a fierce rally (11 top-10s in the next 16 races) to keep his perfect postseason streak alive. He and Jimmie Johnson are the only drivers to make all four Chases, and forgettable days like Sunday won't change that.

Showing Some Love For …

Busch

Kyle Busch: Busch finished a solid sixth at New Hampshire while brother Kurt foundered to 34th with a part failure followed by a crash.

OK, not quite. Reverse that and put big brother on top, something that hasn't happened often this season. In fact, back-to-back top-10s are almost reason to celebrate for the No. 2 Penske Dodge. That has happened twice.

"We felt like we had something good from last week [10th at Richmond] and we tried it again this week. [The car] ran better," said Kurt Busch, who won the rain-shortened race at New Hampshire in June. "We're still struggling at the end of the race keeping up with the racetrack. I don't think it's anybody's fault. We just have to work on something different, but what we've been having lately, it felt good the last two weeks."