Busch stormed into contention for a second Cup championship, holding off fellow Chase drivers Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards to win Sunday at Dover International Speedway, tightening the leaderboard in a playoff where no driver has emerged as a clear-cut favorite.
Busch, though, is in the mix.
His No. 22 Dodge seemed only to get stronger over the 400-mile race and he beat Johnson, his long-time antagonist, on the final restart to take the checkered flag for the second time this season. The win pushed Busch from ninth to fourth in the points standings, only nine points out of first.
Only 15 points separate the top eight drivers with seven races left.
Edwards and Kevin Harvick share the points lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings entering Round 4 of the Chase at Kansas Speedway. Harvick is seeded first because of a tiebreaker.
Busch, the 2004 champion, won his 24th career race and for the first time at Dover.
"To win a Sprint Cup race in the Chase, this is what it's all about," Busch said.
Johnson leads active drivers with six career victories at Dover and traditionally dominated Chase races. Sure enough, after a tough start to the Chase, the defending five-time champion led the majority of laps and proved the No. 48 is far from finished.
"Are we out of this?" said Johnson, rubbing his chin with a smile.
Not yet. Not by a long shot.
Johnson got beat off the last two restarts, spinning his tires on the first one and he mistimed when Busch would accelerate on the second.
"I hate leaving points on the table, and we have these first three," Johnson said.
Losing to Busch had to sting.
Busch made his move off the final restart with 43 laps, leaving Johnson and the rest of the field in the mirror.
Johnson's reign was considered by some to be on the ropes after he finished 10th and 18th in the first two Chase races. But his strong result on one of his favorite tracks moved him only 13 points behind the leaders and feeling confident. He has five straight top 10s, including one win, at Kansas.
"Giving up a win by not getting a good restart, I'll think about it [Sunday night]," Johnson said. "But big-picture wise, we'll take it."
The winning move against Johnson made the victory more meaningful for Busch. Two of the sport's top drivers have developed a long-simmering rivalry — trading paint and barbs — over the years. It reached a boiling part at Richmond when Busch called Johnson a "five-time chump."
"To beat your arch nemesis, that's just icing on the cake. That's pretty sweet," Busch said.
Johnson, who led 157 laps, was second and Edwards was third. Edwards, who won the Dover Nationwide race on Saturday, dominated most of the race until a pit road speeding penalty cost him a lap. Without that infraction, Edwards just might have won the race and made it a weekend sweep.
"I definitely took myself out of position to fight for the win by doing that,' Edwards said. "It's something that's painful."
Chase drivers dotted the rest of the field.
Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch were fifth and sixth. Harvick was 10th. Tony Stewart lost the points lead he built after winning the first two Chase races and finished 25th. Other Chase results were: Jeff Gordon 12th, Denny Hamlin 18th, Brad Keselowski 20th, Ryan Newman 23rd and Dale Earnhardt Jr. 24th.
Earnhardt, Newman and Hamlin are about out of contention. Gordon needs to get hot fast.
Non-Chase drivers filled four of the top-10 spots. Kasey Kahne was fourth, AJ Allmendinger was seventh, Clint Bowyer eighth, and Marcos Ambrose ninth.
Busch started the Chase ranked seventh in the standings and opened with a solid sixth at Chicagoland Speedway. He struggled at New Hampshire and finished 22nd.
He found the right combination at Dover, where he qualified second and carried the position into Victory Lane — and up the standings.
"We've got such a long way to go in this Chase," Busch said. "That's what we're really focused on."
Busch won the first Chase by beating Johnson by eight points for his only NASCAR championship. He credited owner Roger Penske for giving him the equipment and crew needed to compete for a title.
"The car just had a good feel all weekend long," Busch said.
It's a good feel he has to keep rolling all the way through Homestead if he wants to race away with the championship.
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