Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson are back

DOVER, Del. -- Welcome back to the Chase, Kurt Busch.

You too, Jimmie Johnson.

Not that either really were out of it, but for much of the past week, these two were left for dead by many, Busch 28 points out of the lead in ninth place and Johnson 29 back in 10th.

Speculation began that Busch and crew chief Steve Addington wouldn't make it past this season and that Johnson's 10-year relationship with Chad Knaus was on the rocks.

Both looked alive and well on Sunday at Dover International Speedway as Busch held off Johnson on the final two restarts to give them a 1-2 finish that put each in the thick of contention in NASCAR's 10-race playoff.

"Are we out of this, still?" Johnson deadpanned afterward. "Last week, I was considered done."

The five-time defending champion never was done, but the sarcasm is appreciated.

If anything, this is shaping up to be the closest Chase ever. Three races in, the top nine drivers are separated by 19 points, with Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards tied for the lead.

Busch moved up five spots to fourth, only nine out of the lead, with his first win on the Monster Mile. Johnson moved to fifth, 13 points out, after leading a race-high 157 laps

They can't take all the credit for their huge leap, though. Tony Stewart, who won the first two Chase races to build a seven-point lead over Harvick, finished a dismal two laps back in 25th.

"We were terrible," Stewart said after falling onto a tie with Busch nine points out.

That the two-time Cup champion didn't explode over the radio might have been the biggest story of the day. Asked what he struggled with the most, Stewart said, "Just the whole package."

Stewart had every right to be grumpy. Busch and Johnson had every right to be ecstatic, particularly Busch. There's nobody the 2004 Cup champion wants to beat more than Johnson, as we saw several times over the past two years, including the regular-season finale at Richmond where the two spun each other out.

Remember Busch's words that day?

"He's got to learn how to race," Busch said. "He's been able to beat the guys the last five years by outdriving them with what he has for equipment. If he wants to switch equipment, let's see what we can do. I'm going to beat him fair and square with my Penske Dodge."

Busch beat Johnson twice with his Dodge on Sunday -- three if you count his last-second decision to take two instead of four tires on the final pit stop after seeing Johnson go with two. He took the lead from the outside lane on the restart with 42 laps remaining and again on the restart with 35 to go.

He did it without the bumping and shoving show the two put on at Richmond and Pocono, where they verbally assaulted each other.

It was, as Johnson reminded at Richmond, the way they had to race each other to contend for the title.

"You know, it was on my mind, but it wasn't," Busch said of restarting beside Johnson. "I had tunnel vision for Victory Lane today. It didn't matter who we had to drive around, through.

"We took him on the outside, we took him on the inside. It's sweet. It's sweet beating your arch-nemesis."

Busch knows what most know, that despite a slow start to the Chase, the championship still goes through Johnson and the No. 48 team. He probably hopes what happened on Sunday sent a message, but Johnson didn't look too concerned. He got the top-three finish he mentioned on Friday and is positioned for what many fear is a run at a sixth straight title.

He didn't give it a second thought that it was Busch beside him on the final restarts.

"It was just another guy to race, another car to worry about fighting for the win," said Johnson, blaming himself for letting Busch get the better of him both times.

Johnson was so loose that he was almost giddy, particularly during one postrace exchange with third-place Edwards about whether they felt mistakes cost them the win.

"If I was Carl, I wouldn't get over that mistake," Johnson said of Edwards' pit road speeding penalty that at one point put him two laps down in 30th place. "I maybe wouldn't show up next week."

Harvick The competition level is so even, 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. It's just a matter of keeping yourself in it until you get to the last couple of races.

-- Kevin Harvick

Edwards laughed and responded, "But you're not me."

Said Johnson, "No, no."

Yes, Edwards was happy, too. He overcame a huge mistake to keep himself in contention. If the race went another 30 laps he may have been celebrating instead of Busch.

But that's the way this Chase apparently will go. After a regular-season that saw 11 different points leaders -- there were four in each of the past two seasons -- you can look forward to a lot of change over the next seven weeks.

There's no reason for anybody to be panicking.

OK, Denny Hamlin has no chance at 68 points out. Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. don't look too good at 41 and 34 points out, respectively. But as we have seen all season and saw again on Sunday, with Busch and Johnson, things can change quickly.

"The competition level is so even, 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," said Harvick, who moved into a tie for the lead with his 10th-place finish.

"It's just a matter of keeping yourself in it until you get to the last couple of races."

That's how Busch won the inaugural Chase under the old points system. He knows it won't be any different this time around.

"I've been in this position before," Busch said.

So has Johnson. That's why it was ridiculous to think either was on life support going into Sunday.

"It's hard to really put one word on it, but I would say it's a slippery Chase, because you can slip just one little bit and the next thing you know you're fighting from behind," Busch said. "You just want those out-of-the-ordinary things to happen."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.