CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Longtime NASCAR fans deride the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship as manufactured drama that has ruined the racing.
Try telling that to the five drivers who used Kansas Speedway to gain points on leader Mark Martin.
"I think that's why they made the Chase," four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said after chipping 19 points off his deficit Sunday. "There's a lot of racing left to go. There's a lot of great competition, and the competition is as even as I've ever seen it."
Nobody thought that seven days earlier, when three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson routed the competition at Dover. He led Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin across the finish line, and closed his gap to just 10 points to Martin.
Through two Chase races, there were two Hendrick cars at the front of the standings and only two other drivers within 100 points of the leader. There was also a little bit of panic that this Chase was going to be another Hendrick runaway.
Then came Sunday at Kansas, and Martin and Johnson couldn't maintain the dizzying pace they'd set in the first two Chase races.
Martin finished seventh, Johnson was ninth and everyone else pounced. Title contenders grabbed 10 of the top 11 spots - "There was nothing but Chase guys up front," fifth-place finisher Denny Hamlin said after - and the Hendrick stars suddenly looked human.
There were just three drivers within 100 points of the leader before Kansas. Now there's six, and seventh-place Gordon is a mere 103 points out.
Just like that, NASCAR has a real title race on its hands.
"We've got a great shot at this still," said race-winner Tony Stewart, who ended an eight-week slide just in time to give Chevrolet the manufacturers' title while climbing back into contention for his own championship.
Stewart sliced 39 points off of Martin's lead, and now sits fourth in the standings, 67 points out.
"It shows how competitive this Chase is," Stewart said. "Guys that w ere up front had average days, and a lot of guys closed on them. If you have a bad day, there's going to be guys that are going to capitalize on it."
That's exactly what they did Sunday. Stewart, Gordon, Hamlin and Greg Biffle - guys who could not afford an "average" finish and still keep the leaders in sight - all saw their title hopes revitalized by outrunning Martin and Johnson.
So did Juan Pablo Montoya, the only driver to notch a top-five in all three of the Chase races. He, too, gained ground and is hanging tough at third in the standings, just 51 points behind Martin.
"It's what we need to do every weekend," Montoya understated.
There's not going to be a lot of room for error in this Chase, particularly after Martin and Johnson left Kansas unsatisfied with their finishes. Martin, the pole-sitter, led early but faded and wasn't in the mood to celebrate his 17th top-10 finish this season.
"I don't think we should be getting all hyped up abo! ut the tally right now, you know? We've got a lot of racing to go," said Martin, who gained eight points on Johnson but quickly noted that several drivers had closed the gap.
And Johnson was perplexed by his day. He had a five-second lead over second-place midway through the race, but fell back into traffic after a four-tire stop and never got back to the front. So confident in his team's ability, Johnson has done a great job so far of not concerning himself with the competition and only focusing on his own performance.
So he wasn't interested in handicapping the field Sunday.
"It is way too early to tell. It is only three races in and we just don't know what is going to happen," he said.
And that's what the Chase is for. Since its 2004 inception, the points leader at the start of the 10-race Chase has won the championship only once, when Stewart did it in 2005. And he had to earn it, too: Up 185 points over Biffle when the field was reset, his margi! n was reduced to 35 by the season finale.
In every other season, the driver leading the points did not win the championship. It meant Gordon's 312-point lead was swallowed up in 2007, same for Kyle Busch and his 207-point cushion last year.
Other seasons didn't have such dominating regular-season performances, but Stewart did have a 179-point lead evaporate at the start of the Chase. Under the old format, there'd be very little intrigue over the final 10 races, and that's what makes the Chase exciting.
"Right now, Tony would be pretty much on cruise control with the championship," Gordon said of the old system. "So they made the Chase to have a playoff-type system, and all year long it's been (about) anybody who can win races and come on strong. That's what we've got."