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A Lucky Break

There was trouble in the heartland for a number of Chase contenders, but for Jimmie Johnson, K.C. turned out O.K.

IF JIMMIE JOHNSON wins his second straight Nextel Cup next month in Homestead, Fla., he'll likely look back on Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway as the moment his season was saved. ¬∂ Just before 4 p.m., Johnson was stuck in 27th place in the LifeLock 400 and appeared to be on his way to a disastrous points day—one that could have derailed his quest to repeat. He had been on pit road when, midway through the race, rain started falling. Minutes later NASCAR red-flagged the race, and Johnson was caught a lap down. During the two-hour, 13-minute delay, Johnson holed up in his motor coach, fearful that the race would be called and that the leader, Tony Stewart, one of his main Cup competitors, would be the winner.

"I was a mess during the delay," Johnson said. "We would have been in a huge hole if the race ended."

Then Johnson caught a break: The rain stopped. At 6:03 p.m. the green flag waved again. Johnson, who had wrecked his primary car in Saturday's practice, was in his backup. He'd had just 30 minutes of seat time in the car before the race, but after the restart he roared through the field—a show of speed that underlined both the depth of his Hendrick Motorsports team and the reason Johnson is favored to win the Cup.

Johnson was closely eyeing Stewart, who on Lap 155 had gotten caught up in an accident and suffered damage to the left front fender of his number 20 Chevy. Though his tire was rubbing on the fender and smoking through every turn, Stewart and his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, chose not to fix the problem on pit road. It was a titanic gamble, and afterward several rival crew chiefs said they vehemently disagreed with the strategy because it was so likely the tire would go flat.

Predictably, the maneuver backfired: The tire blew on Lap 176, triggering a multicar wreck that knocked Stewart out of the race and, quite possibly, out of Chase contention. Johnson narrowly avoided Stewart's careering car. It was this moment—Johnson's slipping past Stewart—that will be remembered from Kansas, the instant that both men's Chase fortunes changed. Johnson went on to finish third behind winner Greg Biffle, while Stewart wound up 39th.

"There was some separation among the contenders today, and that's good for us," said Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief. "If you have one bad race, it's looking like it'll be tough to get back into it."

Indeed, after Separation Sunday—seven of the 12 Chase drivers finished 30th or worse—three Chasers have emerged as the front-runners. Johnson holds a six-point lead over Jeff Gordon and a 14-point edge on Clint Bowyer. Stewart, in fourth, trails Johnson by 117 points—a huge deficit considering that Johnson's two best Chase tracks (Charlotte and Martinsville) come in the next three weeks.

"We escaped with a top five," said Johnson, "and right now that feels like a win."

ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis every Tueday and Friday.

Short Laps

1 The revelation of the Chase so far is Clint Bowyer. Two weeks after winning at New Hampshire, he took second at Kansas behind Greg Biffle. How surprising is this? In Bowyer's previous 64 Cup starts, he had never finished first or second.

2 Though Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not make the Chase, he's having an impact on NASCAR's playoff. On Lap 28 he bumped into the back of Kyle Busch—the same driver whose seat he will take at Hendrick Motorsports next season—and caused him to spin out and hit the wall. Busch (above) finished 41st and is now 136 points behind Johnson. Said a baffled Busch of Little E, "He ran me over for no reason."



BACK IN FRONT Johnson (48 and, inset, with Knaus) took over the points lead again.



[See caption above]