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Favorites emerging in 2011 Chase

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

And now we have a new "it" driver of the week. Check that, drivers.

Just 19 points separate Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards in first and Jeff Gordon in ninth. This is the result of NASCAR's new, incrementally smaller points system. For now, anyway.

Kurt Busch, ninth after last week's race, is now third thanks to Sunday's win at Dover. Two wins were enough to propel Tony Stewart from last to first, but a 25th at Dover knocked him back to third. And Jimmie Johnson, he's not done. One second-place finish vaulted him from 10th to fifth, just 13 points back with seven races still to go.

"Are we out of this?" Johnson quipped after Sunday's race. "Last week I was considered done."

Maybe, but only among the wishful-thinking crowd, which by now has to realize the king is not dead until he's actually dead, and Johnson is very much alive.

Going into Sunday's race Johnson said he needed to finish third or better. He did that with ease, leading the most laps. He likely would have won going away had he not slipped up on the final restart, allowing Busch to make the winning pass. But while a win would have been nice, it wasn't necessary.

What is necessary? Consistency and damage control.

Harvick has taken the points lead by finishing second, 12th and 10th. Edwards has gone fourth, eighth, third. Neither has been great, but neither has been horrible, either. That, not checkered flags, is the formula to winning a championship under this format. One only needs to look at Stewart's results to figure that out.

This is why Johnson is always such a threat in the Chase. They don't miss setups like Stewart and Co. did Sunday. They don't suffer the kind of meltdowns like Busch is susceptible to. No, they're not immune to mistakes, as we saw in the Chase opener at Chicagoland when Johnson ran out of fuel, but prior to that he had a top-three car. That's what the 48 crew, led by Chad Knaus, brings to the track every weekend – a competitive race car.

That's the key to their success. It's not luck. It's opportunity, and they give more opportunities than anyone else.

"A five time champion just doesn't happen by accident," Busch said. "Chad Knaus is a great leader and Hendrick is a great program and Johnson is a very strong and true competitor. And to beat him today and to come out on top, this is a great victory here at Dover."

For Busch, the win vaulted him back within eyeshot of the points leaders. And while we're talking about consistency, consider this: He's the only driver to be in the top 10 in the standings every week of the season.

Still, he's suffered through several stretches of futility that call into question his staying power.

The same can be said of Harvick, who went through a seven-race period leading into the Chase when he scored just one top-10 finish.

The one driver who has shown the kind of consistency to match Johnson's is Edwards. Only twice this season has Edwards finished outside the top 10 in consecutive races. He's currently in a stretch of six straight top 10s, including four top fives. Like Johnson, he's been competitive in every race of the Chase so far.

So while it may look like any of nine drivers are capable of winning this year's title, I think it's going to come down to Johnson and Edwards.

Tony Stewart? Didn't have anything in the first 26 races.

Brad Keselowski? Still too much of a Cinderella.

Matt Kenseth? A poor man's Carl Edwards.

Kyle Busch? Still too all over the place.

Jeff Gordon? Possibly, but he needs to find that mojo he lost between Richmond and Chicago.

No, Johnson or Edwards haven't won a lot of races this season – one each – but what they have done is put themselves in position to win more than anyone else. And ultimately, that's what it takes to win a title in this format.

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