DOVER, Del. (AP) — Matt Kenseth has Chase perfection. Kyle Busch nailed the runner-up finishes. And no driver can touch the championship pedigree of Jimmie Johnson.
Led by Kenseth, the top three drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings have started to separate themselves from the rest of the field with eight races remaining.
But is the list of contenders set? Have only three drivers out of the 13-car field really emerged as the favorites to win the championship?
Not so fast.
Carl Edwards is lurking in fourth, and Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick have certainly stamped themselves as drivers who can win races and wrest the top spot away from Kenseth.
“I can’t imagine with eight races to go that somebody would be willing to say, ‘Oh, this is a three-man race,’” Biffle said.
As the Chase shifts Sunday to Dover, the field knows time is running short to widen the list of contenders. They’ll need that perfect blend of strong finishes and the hope that Kenseth blows an engine or Busch and Johnson wreck. Anything that takes the top drivers out of the checkered flag chase.
Kenseth, who has a series-high seven wins, leads Busch by 14 points and Johnson by 18. Edwards (36 back), Biffle (38), and Harvick (39) are still in the mix.
Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne round out the field. For some perspective, Kahne is 71 points behind Kenseth, more than a full race behind the leader.
“I wouldn’t be the one putting my name on the line to say there are only three cars in this hunt right now,” Biffle said. “I wasn’t necessarily saying that for the 16 team. I wasn’t making the case that it’s not a three-man race because of us. I wouldn’t count out Carl Edwards or any of those other guys that are right there in the hunt.”
Biffle, who was third last week at New Hampshire, knows as well as any driver that a championship isn’t won in the first two races. He was the first driver in Chase history to win the first two races (2008) of the 10-race playoff and he followed with a third in Kansas.
A strong showing, just not stout enough to hold off Johnson for the championship. Biffle had four finishes of 10th or worse and finished third in the final standings.
One of NASCAR’s most consistent drivers, Biffle was second in 2002, seventh in 2009, sixth in 2010 and fifth in 2012. But when it comes to true title contenders, Biffle’s name is rarely tossed around in the same category with Johnson or Kenseth or Kyle Busch.
“Am I surprised they’re not talking about the 16? Not really because we tend to slide a little bit under the radar all the time anyway,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. It gives you motivation to do well and compete every week and try to get what you can. If you’re winning races or you win the championship, they have to talk about you, so put yourself in that position.”
That starts with winning races. Biffle has two wins and 10 top 10s in 22 career starts at the 1-mile track. He made seven straight starts at Dover in one stretch where he finished no worse than eighth.
Kenseth is a two-time winner at Dover. He led 29 laps at the track in June before an engine failure ended his day. Johnson has seven wins at the Monster Mile.
Johnson would love to keep the number of contenders at a minimum — and find himself on top of the standings.
“I’m certainly looking forward and there are only two guys that I’m paying attention to right now, so in that mindset, sure, you can call it a three man race,” he said. “It’s still way too early to count many out yet.”
Biffle, who has one win this season, starts 19th on Sunday. Edwards, Biffle’s Roush-Fenway Racing teammate, starts fourth.
While not the closest of friends, Biffle and Edwards respect each other and do what they can to put the teams in position to win.
“Carl and I are parked next to each other in the garage, and we’re talking about our cars and competition and how our car is in race trim versus qualifying trim, so we share everything and try to help one another with what we can,” Biffle said.