Don't look now, but the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup just got a lot more competitive.
Yes, the top three drivers entering Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway are the same top three drivers, in the same order, after the race. Nevertheless, what happened at Charlotte exposed a vulnerability in Chase leader Brad Keselowski and simultaneously provided an injection of hope into those pursuing him.
Forget Jeff Gordon's pit road speeding penalty and Tony Stewart's handling issues. The biggest loser on Saturday night was Keselowski. That may seem a harsh assessment for an 11th-place finish, but it marked a significant erosion in Keselowski's position atop the standings.
One of the fundamental strengths of Keselowski's team is brain power, both on the part of the driver and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe. At Charlotte, however, Keselowski lost ground because of a rare miscalculation; late in the race he tried to stretch his fuel-mileage one lap beyond the capacity of his fuel cell-and paid the price.
As he crossed the finish line to complete Lap 275 of 334, Keselowski radioed to Wolfe that he was out of gas. The momentum of the No. 2 Penske Dodge carried him back around to pit road, but Keselowski lost time in the process. He also lost valuable seconds getting the engine re-fired.
Losing time cost Keselowski positions on the track he would not regain, and it also negated the pit-early-and-stay-out-later strategy that had gotten the Blue Deuce to the front of the field in the first place.
Accordingly, Keselowski lost ground to five drivers behind him in the standings, most notably race winner Clint Bowyer, who shaved 12 points off Keselowski's advantage over the driver of the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota.
Interestingly, Bowyer is on a similar trajectory to the one that carried Jimmie Johnson to the title in 2006. You'll recall that Johnson trailed Jeff Burton by 156 points after the fourth race of the Chase, at Talladega, and began to chip away at the deficit with a second-place run the following week at Charlotte.
In comparing NASCAR's current scoring system to the one in place in 2006, the 156-point hole Johnson overcame is the functional equivalent of the 40-point disadvantage Bowyer faced before the Charlotte race. Bowyer, fourth in the Chase standings, now heads for repaved Kansas, his home track, with renewed momentum and a workable deficit of 28 points to Keselowski.
The Charlotte race also produced a compression at the top of the standings that should invigorate anyone within 50 points of the lead. Jimmie Johnson (second in the standings and third Saturday night) gained six points on Keselowski and trails by seven. Race runner-up Denny Hamlin (third in points) knocked eight points off his deficit to Keselowski and stands 15 behind.
Though the Charlotte race didn't produce a dramatic shift in the standings, it does serve as a reminder that, with five events left in the Chase, the potential for a major shake-up remains.
Remember, in 2006, even after his second-place run at Charlotte, Johnson was seventh in the standings, 146 points behind Burton. Translating the points systems, that's approximately where fifth-place Kasey Kahne stands right now, 35 points back.
Remember, too, that in the sixth Chase race of 2006, at Martinsville, Burton suffered a catastrophic engine failure, finished 42nd and saw his championship hopes spew from his tailpipe into the ether.
That said, the winner of this year's championship is most likely to come from the current top three. In the last two non-restrictor-plate races, at Dover and Charlotte, Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin spent the majority of the events running where you might have expected - in the top three.
Those three drivers have shown the greatest consistent speed so far, and there's nothing to suggest that will change.
But with five races left, and the pressure accumulating, it would be a mistake to rule out the unusual or the improbable.
Clint Bowyer certainly isn't doing that.