|Tony Stewart isn't counting himself out of the Chase just yet. (US Presswire)|
The Chase field is finding some major separation with only three races in the books.
While there is still a lot of racing left to go in the playoff run, it's hard to imagine some of the drivers mired in the rear of the standings having any chance of winning this year's crown.
Matt Kenseth has fallen into the basement, a whopping 72 points behind leader Brad Keselowski after another horrendous Chase outing Sunday in Dover.
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A broken track bar followed by a hard hit to the inside retaining wall, after his crew tried to "fix" the problem, wound up with Kenseth placing 35th.
"In two out of three Chase races something either fell off or broke, so obviously that's not good," said Kenseth, who also lost a shock absorber in the Chicagoland Chase opener. "Our performance hasn't been very good either, so I don't know. Today was a struggle.
"This is probably the worst we've run here for as long as I can remember. We just really missed it. From the first lap on the track to the last lap on the track we were pretty much junk. Everybody is trying hard, but we just missed it."
Kenseth's frustration was shared by Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, who had a cut tire derail any chance of finishing well in Dover.
Biffle fought back to come home 16th, but suddenly the driver who led the regular season point standings finds himself 51 points out of the lead.
"It's tough," said Biffle. "It happened to us in 2005 right toward the end of the Chase, though, and it cost us the title, but I don't think that loose wheel today is going to cost us the championship. We were off a little bit, but we were definitely a top-10 car, probably top-eight, especially with the way it ended up.
"We were in great position, so to finish where we did and have that happen is pretty remarkable, but that really kind of takes us out of the title hunt. We really needed to finish in the top three here to really be a factor, but now we'll just work on being in the top 10."
Even defending series champion Tony Stewart has found rough sledding early in this year's Chase. Stewart was nowhere near competitive on Sunday and his 20th-place effort dropped him 32 markers behind the point leader.
"I don't know. We just got caught behind the eight ball there," Stewart explained. "We got a lap down and the next run we pitted, and we came back out and the No. 36 [J.J. Yeley] car crashes.
"It was just a domino effect. Every time you'd try to get a lap back it would run all the way to the end. And as soon as we'd pit, the caution would come out again. So, I don't know what we've got to do to change our luck, but that's just the story of the day for us."
But unlike Kenseth and Biffle, Stewart has not yet counted himself out of the championship picture.
"Until they tell us we're not, we're in it," he said.
(Number in parenthesis is last week's rankings)
1. Brad Keselowski (2)
Scored his fifth win of the season and second of the Chase Sunday in New Hampshire, this time using both a fast car and excellent fuel mileage strategy to get to Victory Lane.
2. Jimmie Johnson (1)
Fuel mileage might have cost Johnson an eighth-career Dover win and continues to be an Achilles heel for the otherwise potent No. 48 team.
3. Denny Hamlin (3)
Despite running out of fuel late in the race and giving up a chance to win, Hamlin's Dover weekend has to provide confidence for the driver and team after performing well at one of their worst tracks.
4. Kasey Kahne (4)
A vibration sent Kahne to pit road while running inside the top five Sunday, a problem that was compounded when he was busted for speeding on pit road.
5. Clint Bowyer (6)
A decent if not spectacular day for the Michael Waltrip Racing driver. A top-10 finish kept Bowyer near the top of the Chase standings.
6. Tony Stewart (5)
The Stewart-Haas Racing entry was not in sync over the weekend at the "Monster Mile," where Stewart has struggled in recent years. A 20th-place finish for Smoke.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7)
A mediocre weekend for Junior that ended in an 11th-place finish. The No. 88 team remains stuck in neutral through the first three races of the Chase.
8. Martin Truex Jr. (10)
A decent homecoming for the New Jersey native with a sixth-place Dover finish. But Truex Jr. is pretty close to dropping out of championship contention.
9. Jeff Gordon (12)
Has charged back after the Chicagoland Chase disaster with a pair of solid outings including a second-place run at Dover. Still believes he can be in the title picture although time is not on his side.
10. Joey Logano (13)
Keeps knocking down top-10 finishes. Followed up his dominating Dover Nationwide win with a 10th on Sunday.
11. Kevin Harvick: (11)
Nothing but struggles for the entire Richard Childress Racing team at Dover with Harvick the best of the bunch in 13th.
12. Greg Biffle: (8)
A flat tire basically ended Biffle's championship aspirations and there is a fair amount of frustration inside the team that led the standings after the regular season.
13. Kyle Busch: (15)
Dominated the day until it mattered most when he came up short on the fuel-mileage game and was forced to give up the race lead. Speaking of frustration, it's not in short supply over at the 18 camp as well.
14. Ryan Newman (14)
Bad news for Newman, an unmemorable 21st-place Dover finish. The good news: Quicken Loans will announce an extended sponsorship deal with the No. 39 car on Tuesday.
15. Matt Kenseth (9)
A trip into the wall made for a miserable day at the "Monster Mile." Completely out of title contention, now 72 points behind Keselowski for the Chase lead.