A top-20 finish shouldn't end any Chase contender's bid for a title. But this season, with Chasers finishing up front week in and week out, it does put a significant dent in those hopes.
That's how Greg Biffle fell from second in the standings to sixth, 23 points out of first after Sunday's race in Dover, Del. That's why Tony Stewart lost his points lead and fell to fifth with a 18th-place finish, also 23 points out of first. And that's why surging Matt Kenseth's streak came to a screeching halt with a 35th-place finish that dropped him four spots to ninth in the standings, 124 points off the pace.
With the exception of Stewart, who began the race slow-footed and ended the same way, the struggling contenders were bit by tire problems late in the day. As many as seven Chase contenders were among the top 10 100 laps into the 400-lap event. In fact, through 200 laps, the Roush Racing trio of Kurt Busch, Biffle and Kenseth were among the top five -- with Busch showing a race car well on its way to victory.
But one-by-one, they fell.
First went Kenseth, who, just after Busch passed Biffle for the lead, cut a left-rear tire while running fourth and had to limp down pit road on lap 216. He fell one lap down to the field and kissed his shot at a top-five finish goodbye.
Next went Biffle, who cut a left-rear tire while riding in second place and had to come down pit road on lap 299. He, too, fell one lap down.
Finally, Busch started to fall off the pace with less than 40 laps to go and was forced to make a green-flag stop. He fell from complete dominance -- after already securing the most laps led for the event -- to one lap down.
Jack Roush, ever-complimentary of all five of his racers for making the Chase, spoke with the three who fell short and stressed that this was no time to panic.
"There's a lot of racing to do," said Kenseth, echoing the sentiment of the three Roush racers who hit snags. "Eight races is a lot of racing to do."
Kenseth said his only regret for the day was not trusting his instincts more. After complaining of a shaky wheel throughout the race, and repeatedly being told there was nothing wrong, he ignored his senses after running over debris.
"I didn't really want to come down pit road because every time I'd come down pit road the same tires are shaking [and] they'd tell me it's my imagination and that there was nothing wrong with them," Kenseth said. "So I decided to run a couple of laps and I should have trusted my first instinct and pitted."
He was a goner within a couple laps. Even after that flat sent him down one lap, his day wasn't finished being ruined. After getting back on the track, Kenseth hit the wall and finished off his day. The timing was especially tough for teammate Busch, who had only a lap prior pulled onto pit road under the green after falling off the pace.
"What can you do?" Busch said, doing a good job of keeping his composure as circumstances continued to shatter his title defense.
Neither Kenseth nor Busch, who finished 23rd, were able to battle back from falling off the lead lap -- which is why both are now more than 100 points out of first. Biffle, however, was able to salvage a day gone bad at the track where he won in July. After falling off the lead lap, Biffle was the beneficiary of the lucky-dog rule, which put him back on the lead lap and set up his run for a top-15.
"That's not too bad considering what happened to us today," he said. "We just did what we could and that was all we could do. It was a tough day, but we kind of came back from it and finished 13th. The car wasn't as good as it was in the spring, but it was pretty decent. We just couldn't quite get it done."
For Stewart, it never matters what prefaces a poor finish -- so he saw no difference between his result and the Roush trio's just because the Roush drivers were among the top five early on. He did wish he was able to snag the precious five bonus points for leading a lap, but he said his car was awful and didn't deserve the credit.
"We got a lap down twice and got back," he said. "It wasn't the day we were looking for by any means. I think that's pretty obvious to everybody. It was obvious it wasn't a good race car and obvious we don't know why."
What was less obvious was how Stewart would react to the setback. After the race, although Stewart wasn't smiling, he remained poised.
"We'll be fine," he said. "We'll get caught up."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.