CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Matt Kenseth threw the caution flag when the rest of the competition appeared ready to hand the Nextel Cup title to Jeff Burton.
One loose lug nut or flat tire, vowed Kenseth, would change the entire championship chase.
He was right, in a very big way.
An engine failure in Burton's car Sunday tightened the Chase for the Championship standings, giving NASCAR the title hunt it coveted when it launched this format three seasons ago.
Kenseth is the new leader, leaving Martinsville Speedway with a slim 36-point margin over Kevin Harvick. It marks the first time the points leader has changed during the second half of the Chase.
Kurt Busch took over the top spot after the third Chase race in 2004 and never looked back, and Tony Stewart held down his lead for the final eight weeks of last season. Although both champions went into the finale capable of losing the title, neither did as the Chase failed to produce the dramatic buildup NASCAR desired.
This year is shaping up to be everything chairman Brian France hoped and dreamed the Chase would be, with only 99 points separating Kenseth from eighth-place Kasey Kahne - an improvement over last year, when only four drivers were within 100 points of the leader at this stage.
This time around, everyone still has a chance. One bad pit stop or broken part can open it up for anyone to stake a claim on the title.
"It's anybody's championship," said Jimmie Johnson, who used a victory Sunday to jump from seventh in the standings to third.
"Any team is still capable of winning the championship. The points are really close right now, so there can be a lot of moving and shaking, and I don't think anybody is going to sleep well these next four races."
And that's all France ever wanted when he devised this system.
Scores of NASCAR traditionalists hate the Chase, complaining it's contrived and saying it takes away from the model of consistency that was required to win the title before 2004.
Yes, the Chase does trample all over that tradition. But it's hard to argue that this way isn't a lot more fun.
When Kenseth won the title in 2003, the last year under the points system, nobody was still checking out the standings this late in the season. He ran away with that championship, and no one could catch him from August on. He even clinched the title a week before the finale, meaning he could have gone fishing instead of racing that final Sunday.
Kenseth isn't so sure this compelling season is a product of the playoff system.
"Everyone thinks it's the most competitive one, but I kind of look at it the other way - it's the sloppiest Chase we've had so far. The least competitive one," he said. "Nobody has been able to run in the top 10 every week. No one is putting up staggering numbers, or that dominating streak we saw the first two years."
He has a point. If Burton didn't get a flat tire three weeks ago in Talladega, he might have had a 100-point lead. He would have cushioned it with his third-place finish last week in Charlotte, giving him ample breathing room to afford his engine failure Sunday.
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