Dover, DE (Sports Network) -
What a shakeup it was in the point standings after the third race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship on Sunday at Dover International Speedway.
Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards now share the points lead. Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson rebounded big time after New Hampshire, while Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski lost steam following their great starts in the playoffs.
With seven races to go, just 19 points separate the top nine drivers. The other three championship contenders -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin -- aren't out of the title hunt yet, but they do have a lot of catching up to do.
"I think the competition level is so even," Harvick said after his 10th-place run at Dover. "I don't think you're going to see anybody come in here and dominate like you have before, as far as just taking off and running away. You're going to be consistent and solid, and it's just a matter of keeping yourself in it until you get to the last couple of races. And if you can keep yourself in contention, hopefully you've eliminated most of the other guys in the Chase."
Despite a radical change in the points system this year, this is perhaps the closest battle in the Chase after the third round since NASCAR began its playoff format for its top-tier series in 2004.
NASCAR implemented a simpler points structure prior to the start of the season, awarding in one-point increments (43-1). Bonus points are awarded for race wins and laps led.
Harvick and Edwards have accumulated 2,122 points each so far, while Stewart and Busch are both nine markers out of the lead.
What a difference a week has made for Busch and Johnson. At New Hampshire, Busch's car did not pass technical inspection until minutes before the start of the 300-lap race. It didn't get any better for him from there, as he finished 22nd and dropped to ninth in points.
Busch's win at Dover has put him right back in the game.
"We have a long journey ahead of us," he said. "Everyone [on the No.22 team] is so positive with the way they feel about their position and the way that [crew chief] Steve [Addington] is leading these guys that we are not looking back, yet we are not looking too far ahead, because this is a long Chase."
Kurt Busch's win at Dover has put him right back in the game.
After Johnson finished 18th at New Hampshire and fell to 10th in points -- his lowest ranking ever in the eight-year history of the Chase -- many began to wonder if his chances of winning a record-extending sixth straight title were over.
Johnson came to Dover 29 points out of the lead, but after his second-place run, he moved up to fifth in the standings, 13 points behind Harvick and Edwards.
"Are we out of it?" Johnson asked reporters during his post-race news conference at Dover. "Last week, I was considered done."
Johnson is back in it now, but anything can change in the coming weeks, especially with Talladega scheduled for later this month.
"This Chase is so tough to know what it's going to take," he said. "We look at [Tony Stewart] and what he did in the first two races and then the struggles they had [at Dover]. I think it speaks to how tough these ten races are going to be and how you think somebody is on fire and the fire can go out."
Stewart won at Chicago and New Hampshire, but his blazing start in the Chase cooled down with a disappointing 25th-place run at Dover.
Edwards had a great opportunity to win at Dover and take sole possession of the points lead, had it not been for his pit-road speeding penalty shortly after the halfway point in the 400-mile race. He did bounce back nicely with a third-place finish.
"If we would not have made that mistake we would have won; I definitely took myself out of position to fight for the win by doing that," he said.
Keselowski began his playoff run with two straight top-five finishes, including a second-place run at New Hampshire, but his 20th-place finish at Dover bumped him to sixth in points (minus-14).
Matt Kenseth is also 14 points behind following his fifth-place finish, while Kyle Busch's sixth-place run dropped him two spots to eighth in the standings (minus-15).
Jeff Gordon holds the ninth spot in points after finishing 12th.
Earnhardt Jr. started his Chase with a strong third-place showing at Chicago, but his title bid has gone south since then, finishing 17th last week and then 24th on Sunday.
"We are still alive, and we will keep racing as hard as we can until the last lap at Homestead," he said.
Newman has fallen 41 points out of the lead after finishing 23rd and 25th in the last two races.
Now 68 points behind, Hamlin's championship hopes are quickly fading. Hamlin barely made it into his sixth straight Chase, earning a wild card by virtue of his win in June at Michigan. If his team doesn't figure something out right away, he might be the first one knocked out of the title race.