LOS ANGELES – Now this is a chase.
NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup title playoff this year is the closest it has been after three races, although Jimmie Johnson is a favorite to widen his current slim lead in the standings as the Sprint Cup Series returns to Southern California.
Seven of the 12 Chase drivers are within 85 points of Johnson, and three others are within 150 points as NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series holds the fourth of the 10 Chase races, the Pepsi Max 400 today at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
Johnson, seeking an unprecedented fifth consecutive Cup title in stock-car racing’s premier series, has an eight-point edge over Denny Hamlin. Right behind them are Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, his brother Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle, who won last weekend at Kansas.
Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth also are within striking distance of getting back into title contention.
Only Clint Bowyer, 252 points behind Johnson, is considered all but out of the Chase already. Bowyer won the first Chase race at New Hampshire but then was penalized 150 points when NASCAR ruled that the body of his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet didn’t meet requirements.
While the Chase is close, Johnson is a good bet to widen his lead at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval because the El Cajon, Calif., native has won four of the last six races there, including the Auto Club 500 last February.
“We’re not going to throw in the towel,” Biffle, driver of the No. 16 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, said this week. “Jimmie’s won a lot in California (but he is) not clearly running away with this thing yet.”
Johnson, 35, also refused to look too far ahead.
“It’s early” in the Chase, Johnson said after finishing second behind Biffle at Kansas. “We have to get deeper into the Chase to be concerned about who the points leader is.”
Kyle Busch took advantage of two poor pit stops by Kevin Harvick’s crew and rallied from a speeding penalty for his record-extending 12th Nationwide Series victory of the year at Auto Club Speedway.
Busch, the polesitter, had the best car on the restarts, but Harvick was better on the long runs in the 300-mile race.
Harvick’s crew negated any long-run success he was having, bumbling two pit stops to knock him out of the lead twice.
Busch had a pit-road problem of his own and dropped to 15th after being penalized for speeding. He quickly worked his way back to the front and pulled way in a final five-lap dash after a wreck took out Danica Patrick, who wasn’t hurt.
Points leader Brad Keselowski was second, and Harvick finished third.