Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson entered Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway ranked ninth and 10th in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup — in 28- and 29-point holes. Many were already throwing dirt on Johnson’s bid for a sixth straight championship, while Busch was merely an afterthought in the title hunt.
That all changed in the Chase’s third race.
Busch got the jump on Johnson twice during late-race restarts — the first with 42 laps remaining and again with 35 to go — and never relinquished it, winning his second race of the 2011 and his first career on Dover’s high banks.
“My guys on pit road did a phenomenal job to be consistent, to be smooth, and to put us out there where we needed to be,” Busch said. “And I was able to wrestle the lead away from the 48 car (Johnson) and got to his high side and took the lead. And then with the final pit stop, Steve (Addington, crew chief) was thinking four (tires), I was thinking four, but we switched to two tires, and that was the perfect call.
“We beat Johnson out of the pits, had the inside lane on the final restart and we just took it to him. I knew we needed to get that jump on the restart and we never looked back.”
Johnson held on for second, while Carl Edwards overcame a mid-race pit-road violation and charged through the field to finish third. Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 5.
Tony Stewart, who won the first two races of the Chase and came into the Dover weekend the points leader, struggled throughout the day and finished 25th. That, along with the top-3 runs by Busch, Johnson and Edwards, tightened the standings up. Kevin Harvick and Edwards now sit tied for first, although Harvick’s four wins trump Edwards’ one in the tie-breaker. Stewart and Busch are now tied for third, nine points out, while Johnson jumped five spots to fifth, only 13 points in arrears.
“Are we out of it, still?” Johnson joked with the media afterwards. “Last week I was considered done.”
Johnson’s 157 laps led were the most any driver on the day, although Edwards seemed to have the best car early, having led 116 of the first 176 circuits. His pit-road speeding penalty dropped him two laps off the pace, though, and he spent the remainder of the day making up ground.
“It’s really easy to say (that) if we would not have made that mistake we would have won,” Edwards said of the penalty. “I definitely took myself out of position to fight for the win by doing that. So that’s something that painful, and I’m going to think about it — I’m going to think about it all the way home.”
The top-nine drivers in the standings are all still alive for the title with seven races remaining. Jeff Gordon, in ninth, is only 19 points out of the lead, while Kyle Busch (eighth) in 15 back and Kenseth and Brad Keselowski are tied for sixth, just 14 out.
Keselowski’s magical nine-race run — he had recorded nine straight top-12 finishes, including two wins — came to an end when his Penske Dodge threw a power steering belt. Until then, he had been a consistent top-10 car and had led two laps. Like Edwards, the malfunction dropped him two laps down and, while he was able to make it back onto the lead lap, he ran out of time and settled for a 20th-place finish.