This wasn't supposed to happen for another three weeks. California was supposed to be the race where everyone drove around in a single-file line for about 400 miles, all playing follow-the-leader to the presumed inevitable Jimmie Johnson win.
What we got was something very different. Not the Jimmie thing; no, he very nearly won. But Fontana did something unexpected, ending the Chase hopes of multiple contenders on an afternoon that was far more dramatic than it was supposed to be.
Early on, guys like Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch looked like they'd be solid contenders; a couple even took turns at the front of the pack. But soon enough, it all went horribly wrong, and one by one, their race charts started looking like the Dow Jones in 2008 — burbling along merrily before plunging off a cliff.
Here's how the Chase presumably ended for these drivers:
• Biffle got as high as fifth before his engine blew out on Lap 35, sending him straight to the garage and out of the race. His win at Kansas now just a distant memory, Biffle will have to content himself with ... well, nothing, really. It's over for him.
• Edwards ran farther than Biffle, getting to eighth before fuel line problems at Lap 58 forced him to the garage. One fuel-line transfusion later and he was back on the track, albeit more than a dozen laps down.
• Kyle Busch followed up on last week's race-killing battle with David Reutimann with a performance that had him momentarily in the lead. But his engine also died with less than 50 laps to go, prompting Kyle to all but concede the Chase, both over his radio and in postrace interviews.
• Kurt Busch saw his own dwindling hopes flicker and almost surely die when he and David Ragan tangled with only a few laps left in the race. Kurt was able to get back onto the track and salvage a 21st-place finish, but already this far back in the Chase, that was a finish he simply couldn't afford.
• Matt Kenseth also had engine troubles, a development which has to trouble Roush Fenway. He was already holding up the back end of the standings, and his 30th-place finish closes the books on any chance of another championship.
Wow. That's the kind of standings carnage you expect from a restrictor plate track, not from a wide-open deck like Fontana. This Chase was the most wide-open in memory before California. It's still crowded at the top, but now we have a much better idea of who's not going to be winning.