KANSAS CITY, Kansas - Capped by a tremendous three-way battle for victory over the final 40 laps at Dover, the Sprint Cup Series seems to be riding at least a ripple of renewed competition as the Chase moves into its third week at Kansas Speedway.
The Chase opener at New Hampshire featured a good late-race battle between Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson, and the regular-season finale at Richmond was a duel between Johnson and Tony Stewart.
The question now, then, is whether the good run is a trend that bodes well for the rest of the season. Or, is it merely a confluence of circumstances traced to the venues that won't continue when the Cup teams return to a 1.5-mile track like the one at Kansas?
"I think we understand this car so well, and the cars are so much the same from car to car, that we're going to be able to go to Kansas and be pretty close to on the money," said Biffle, who has certainly been on the mark in winning the past two races.
"I think you're going to see a really good race at Kansas."
There's a consensus building that Cup teams are getting a better handle on the new race car, which is making its Kansas debut this week.
"Everybody in this garage is working as hard as they can to get these cars driving better," David Ragan said. "I know our cars are driving better than they did a year ago. We still have some distance to go, but the cars are easier to drive and we know going into the race what to expect so we can make better decisions.
"A year and a half ago we were shooting in the dark at a lot of the problems that we faced. Sometimes we would hit it and sometimes we wouldn't. Now we have more good notes to go off of.
"If I've got a problem, we have a list of things that have helped in the past and we can get the cars driving better sooner. That makes for more competitive racing with everybody."
Tony Eury Jr., crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., is not as convinced that the racing at Kansas is going to be as close.
"At the shorter tracks, this car puts a lot of it back into the drivers' hands and brings out some exceptional racing," Eury Jr. said. "When you get to the point where you're going 200 mph, that's when the car becomes more of a handful and things start to spread out."
Jeff Burton suspects the same thing.
"The faster you go, the more spread out the cars are going to get," Burton said. "That's simple math. If you're off 1 percent at 200 mph, you're further away than if you're off 1 percent at 90 mph. Some of it is that the smaller the track, the better the racing."
But, Burton said, there are factors pointing toward better results on the intermediate-style tracks that remain in the Chase.
"The weather is starting to get cooler and the tracks won't be as slick," he said. "We had really slick conditions this summer, and the slicker it is the more spread out the cars get. ... With this new car, when you don't have grip, they don't have any grip. ...When we said we had no grip in the last car it still had more grip than this car. And the slicker it gets the harder it is to make these cars work."
But making these cars work is the only choice Cup teams have, said Jimmy Fennig, Ragan's crew chief.
"Everybody is working harder and harder," Fennig said. "At the beginning of the year when we hadn't tested you would miss the setup here and there and it just shot you out to lunch. But this is what we’ve got to deal with."