LOUDON, N.H. Greg Biffle began the Chase for the championship as a long shot.
Winless for almost a year and seeded a distant ninth in the 12-driver field, few considered him a serious contender. But "The Biff" never counted himself out, believing a strong run Sunday in the opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway would put him in position to race for the Sprint Cup title.
Biffle used a self-described "textbook pass" on Jimmie Johnson with 12 laps to go to snap a 33-race winless streak and vault all the way to third in the Chase standings. He trails co-leaders Johnson and Carl Edwards, his teammate at Roush Fenway Racing, by just 30 points.
"I felt like we were a definite threat for the Chase if we made it because of the momentum we've had and how good the (Chase) race tracks are for me," he said. "There were some that I was a little nervous about, and one was Loudon. We've gotten through the one a little better than I expected, which is here, so I feel like we're definitely the darkhorse."
Johnson, the two-time defending series champion, seemed to have the first round of the Chase locked up after leading a race-high 96 laps. But Biffle was saving his Ford, hopeful that a late caution or two would give him the chance he needed to run Johnson down.
He got it when Patrick Carpentier spun late, setting up a restart with 13 to go. Biffle slid past Johnson on the next lap to grab the surprise win and leave Victory Lane with a noted swagger. It was his first victory since Kansas last September.
"They named me 'The Biff' and then they said I was a darkhorse. Now I don't know what else they're going to call me," he said. "The horse rode today, didn't it?"
Johnson finished second and said he knew Biffle would make a run on him after David Ragan and Carpentier brought out a pair of cautions with less than 20 laps to go.
"Short runs is what hurt me the most. I felt a little vulnerable, and sure enough he got by," Johnson said. "But the big picture, second place is not a bad day at the office."
Edwards finished third and was followed by Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Chase drivers swept the top five spots.
Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr., two drivers not eligible for the Sprint Cup title, finished sixth and seventh.
Chase drivers Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 10.
Kyle Busch, the regular-season points winner, struggled from the start in a disaster of an opening race. He broke the sway bar on his Toyota just minutes after the race began, and struggled to keep his car off the wall as he tried to nurse it to the mandatory first caution at lap 35.
He barely made it and fell two laps off the pace one lap because of a penalty and restarted in 43rd place. He was in a later wreck and finished 34th, 12 laps down.
After starting the Chase with an 80-point cushion, he tumbled all the way to eighth in the standings.
Still, no one was counting out the most dominant driver this season.
"We just have no clue what's going to happen with the races to come," said Johnson, who finished 39th in the 2006 Chase opener but rallied to win his first title.
Stewart, Kyle Busch's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, also had a strange day but was able to salvage a top-10 finish. He ran up front early and was in second when he bumped into Johnny Sauter as he left his pit box during a routine stop.
Stewart had to return to the pits for a quick repair, dropping to 35th when the race restarted on lap 89. He motored through the field into the mid-20s, but was later assessed a penalty for speeding off pit road.
"Sorry, guys," he radioed his team after the second pit-road penalty.
"Don't give up, yet," crew chief Greg Zipadelli coached him. "We've still got half a race to go."
The errors came a week after Stewart was critical of Zipadelli's crew for a slow pit stop that cost him the lead and possibly a win at Richmond. Still, he jumped one spot in the standings to seventh and trails the leaders by 73 points in his final season with JGR.
"It just shows how the complexion of this sport can change from week to week," Stewart said. "Last week it was a mistake in the pits, and this week it was a mistake on the driver's part."
Joey Logano, the 18-year-old phenom who is replacing Stewart in the No. 20 next year, had a long race in his Cup debut. He pulled away on an early pit stop with the jack hanging from his car and had to return for a penalty that mired him in the back of the field. He finished 32nd, three laps down.
"Not what I wanted, for sure," Logano said. "It was a tough one. We tried hard, but it just wasn't there the whole time."
Earnhardt and Burton are tied for fourth in the standings, 50 points back, while Hamlin is sixth.
Clint Bowyer, who used a win in the Chase opener here last season to roll to a career-best third-place finish in the standings, tumbled four spots to ninth after finishing 12th on Sunday.
Harvick, Gordon and Matt Kenseth round out the top 12.