Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson moved into the Top 5 in points following strong runs in the third Chase race, but the overall points picture is as unclear as ever after Sunday's event at Dover International Speedway. Nine drivers are within 19 points of the lead with seven races to go before the NASCAR championship is decided.
Busch won the AAA 400 by powering past Jimmie Johnson on the final two restarts while previous points leader Tony Stewart struggled all day en route to a 25th place result.
Stewart's struggles came on the heels of consecutive wins in the first two Chase races. Whether or not Smoke, a two-time Cup champion, is a legitimate title contender or simply a flash in the pan remains to be seen. He's now tied for third with Kurt Busch, nine points behind co-leaders Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick.
Busch, on the other hand, gained five positions in the standings after a disappointing 22nd-place run at New Hampshire last week had dropped him to ninth. He led laps early at Dover and found his way back to the front after Johnson faltered on a couple of late restarts.
With his runner-up Dover run, Johnson also vaulted five places in the points to fifth, 13 points behind the leaders. Five-Time led more laps at Dover than any other driver for the sixth consecutive time. Johnson has won three of those races, but failed to win either Dover event of 2011.
Meanwhile, Edwards moved into a tie for the points lead by finishing third. Cousin Carl led the second-most laps and had the strongest car for most of the day, but a pit road speeding penalty cost him the chance to win. Co-leader Kevin Harvick never quite got the handle of his No. 29 car, eventually finishing 10th.
In addition to Stewart, Kurt Busch and Johnson, four additional drivers are within 19 points of Edwards and Harvick. The other three drivers—Dale Earnhardt Jr. (34 points back), Ryan Newman (41 points behind) and Denny Hamlin (68 points in the red)—are all but eliminated from championship contention.
Who is poised to break out of the pack of nine and run away with the title?
Let's start with four drivers I don't think have a serious shot at taking home the trophy.
Tony Stewart was back to his usual 2011 form at Dover following his two surprising victories, and I don't think he'll be able to ride a hot streak to his third title. Brad Keselowski has been a great story in 2011, but ultimately his inexperience will cost him. I think he'll win a championship eventually, but not this year. Matt Kenseth looked strong heading into the Chase, but he won't get enough top finishes to gain his second career title. Kurt Busch has been strong at times this year, but his No. 22 team hasn't shown the consistency needed to add a second Cup trophy to his collection.
Who does that leave to win the Sprint Cup title? I'll break down the five remaining drivers, starting with those I think will be the strongest contenders.
Recent history suggests that the best bet is Jimmie Johnson. The five-time defending champion is within striking distance of the lead at 13 points back. However, he has just one race win and hasn't been quite his usual dominating self come Chase time.
Kevin Harvick came up a little short behind Johnson and Denny Hamlin last year. He's looking strong again in 2011, and this could be the year Happy finally lives up to his (ironic) nickname.
Carl Edwards has been one of the most consistent drivers all year. Like Jimmie Johnson, he has only a single victory in 2011 and has let some chances for wins slip away. He'll win a title eventually, and quite possibly it could be this year.
Jeff Gordon has been a rejuvenated man in 2011 in his Drive To End Hunger No. 24 machine. With three wins, his highest total since 2007, the four-time champ has high hopes for ending his protege's unprecedented title reign.
Finally, Kyle Busch is tied for the series lead in victories with four but hasn't won in the Chase. I think he'll win multiple championships before his career is over and he's a real threat to break through this year. Most likely, however, the consistency of his No. 18 team will need to improve before he can be the best over the 10 Chase races and win a title.