DOVER, Del. — Kurt Busch left a rocky start to the Chase and his fiercest rival behind him.
Busch stormed into contention for a second Sprint Cup championship, holding off fellow Chase drivers Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards to win the AAA 400 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 to get stronger over the 400-mile race, and he beat Johnson, his longtime antagonist, on the final restart to take the checkered flag for the second time this season.
"To win a Sprint Cup race in the Chase, this is what it's all about," said Busch, who went from ninth to a tie for third in the standings, 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 Championship. Harvick is seeded first because of a tiebreaker.
Busch, the 2004 champion, started the Chase seventh in the standings and opened with a solid sixth at Chicagoland Speedway, but he struggled at New Hampshire and finished 22nd. He found the right combination at Dover.
"We've got such a long way to go in this Chase," said Busch, who won his 24th career race. "That's what we're really focused on."
After a tough start to the Chase, Johnson led the majority of laps and proved the No. 48 is far from finished.
"Are we out of this?" said the defending five-time champion, rubbing his chin and smiling.
Johnson struggled on the last two restarts, spinning his tires on the first and mistiming when Busch accelerated on the second.
"I hate leaving points on the table, and we have these first three (races)," Johnson said.
Busch made his move off the final restart with 42 laps to go, leaving Johnson and the rest of the field in the mirror.
That 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 point 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 third. Edwards dominated most of the race until a pit road speeding penalty cost him a lap.
"I definitely took myself out of position to fight for the win by doing that," he said. "It's something that's painful."
Chase drivers dotted the rest of the field, including Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, fifth and sixth, respectively. Harvick was 10th, and Tony Stewart lost the points lead he built after winning the first two Chase races and finished 25th. He's tied with Kurt Busch for third in the Chase.