Burton's bad day throws Chase wide open

A typical Martinsville fender-bender early in Sunday's race was the start of an awful day for Jeff Burton. For the other nine Chase for the Nextel Cup drivers trying to catch him, it was lions smelling raw meat.

All nine of the other Chasers finished ahead of Burton in the Subway 500, including winner Jimmie Johnson. Eight of them -- including Burton -- now are within 99 points of the top spot in the championship standings with only four races remaining.

Burton fell to fifth in the standings after an engine failure sent him to the garage. Matt Kenseth's 11th-place finish was good enough to move him to the top of the standings.

This is what the Chase is meant to be. Keeping most of the contenders in contention until the end is the way this thing should work.

NASCAR officials have discussed changing the Chase format next year to give the playoff drivers a separate points system. The goal is to make sure all 10 drivers stay close until the last race.

It's hard to imagine any system making the Chase closer than it is now, but it took one horrible finish by the points leader to make things a free-for-all with a month to go.

NASCAR wants to change this system so one 42nd-place finish doesn't eliminate a driver from Chase contention. How ironic that a 42nd-place finish made the championship battle as good as it gets.

Only Kenseth and Harvick were within 100 points of Burton when the green flag waved. Johnson was 146 points back in the eighth spot. Now he's third, only 41 points behind Kenseth and five behind Harvick.

"This is a crazy Chase," Johnson told reporters afterward. "I thought we were down and out and didn't have a chance of fighting back. But luck is a strange thing sometimes. Now the fans will see a heck of a race to the finish."

Johnson made the most of Burton's misfortune by doing what Johnson usually does at Martinsville -- racing up front. He has nine consecutive top-10s on the Virginia short track, including a victory two years ago.

But this is the first time his team celebrated in Victory Lane. The 2004 victory was a tragic day for everyone at Hendrick Motorsports. Ten people associated with the team were killed in a private plane crash near the track.

Team owner Rick Hendrick, who lost his son Ricky that day, didn't attend Sunday's race. He elected to stay in Charlotte with his wife, Linda.

"I wish Rick was here, but I understand," Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, told reporters afterward. "This win today means much more to us than a points battle."

A dream scenario points battle for the Cup title is exactly what NASCAR has now.

Burton started 28th Sunday, often a recipe for trouble on the tiny .526-mile oval. Three laps into the race, Burton couldn't avoid cars spinning and banging together in front of him.

Burton hit the brakes before gently bumping into Joe Nemechek in front of him. As NASCAR accidents go, this one seemed harmless, but it broke a couple of hood pins on Burton's car. That caused a slow pit stop when Burton's crew had to tape the hood down to fix the problem.

Jeff Gordon put Burton a lap down on Lap 107 of the 500-lap race, but the big problems for Burton were yet to come. He fell off the pace on Lap 210 with an engine problem that caused him to take the No. 31 Cingular Chevy to the garage.

"These things happen. Everybody has had an issue in the Chase. It's not over for us by any means. We won't quit, I guarantee you that. I still feel we have as good a chance as anybody."
-- Jeff Burton

Team owner Richard Childress wanted Burton to stay on the track as long as he could, but Burton told Childress that wasn't an option.

"Richard, if we don't fix it, it will blow up," Burton said during the race. "It will not make the race."

It didn't make the race anyway. Burton's day was done when he pulled off the track. He's now one point behind Denny Hamlin, the runner-up at Martinsville, heading to Atlanta next weekend.

"Something broke in the valve train," Burton said afterward. "I'm not an engine guy, but that's my guess."

Burton immediately gathered his team together for a private pep talk. He didn't want anyone to get down over one rough day.

"These things happen," Burton said. "Everybody has had an issue in the Chase. It's not over for us by any means. We won't quit, I guarantee you that. I still feel we have as good a chance as anybody."

Usually a speech like that is just for show. Not this time. Burton's right.

What happened Sunday didn't decide a thing. The team that runs the best in the last four races will watch its driver hoist the Nextel Cup in four weeks.

Isn't that the point?

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.