Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back on top of the points standings for the first time in three months. How long he can stay there remains to be seen.

NASCAR's most popular driver moved into a tie with Kurt Busch for the series lead in NASCAR's new championship format. His four victories to Busch's three give Earnhardt the edge in a tiebreaker, but it doesn't really matter.

Under this system, the standings can flip in a single race and Earnhardt could easily be in 10th following Sunday's race in Dover, Del.

"It's kind of nice to be leading the points again, even though I'd prefer to be up there by myself," Earnhardt said. "To lead the points this early in the Chase probably doesn't mean that much, because we still have a long way to go. But it sure beats being anywhere else in the standings."

The first round of NASCAR's 10-driver, 10-race playoffs didn't produce any major shakeups in the standings.

Busch was the big mover, vaulting seven spots to the top after winning at New Hampshire International Speedway.

Three drivers saw their championship hopes hindered: Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield -- casualties in a wreck intentionally caused by Robby Gordon -- and Ryan Newman, who was done in by a blown engine.

Stewart plummeted four spots to eighth, 124 points behind the leaders. Newman is ninth, and Mayfield 10th.

"I don't think any of us are going to get mulligans," Stewart said. "That's probably going to take us out of the championship."

Headed into Dover, there are seven viable championship contenders. Trailing the leaders are: Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Elliott Sadler, Mark Martin, then Stewart, Newman and Mayfield.

But bad luck striking three contenders in one event has created jitters among some of the other candidates.

"It's survival, anything can happen," Johnson said. "You've got guys out there and everybody has their own agenda and everybody is trying hard. It's just no fun when somebody that isn't in the points battle makes a mistake and takes everybody out, but that's the risk you take."

Although Earnhardt stayed out of trouble at New Hampshire, he saw on several occasions how quickly the car next to him can make one slight move that could instantly take him out of the hunt.

"The people I was around raced me with maybe a minimal amount of more respect than I normally get," Earnhardt said. "Some guys aren't going to change. You could paint these walls black, and there are some guys that wouldn't know the difference. But some of the guys out there know what's going on. They know who is in the Chase, and I think they give you respect for that, I guess. Some guys don't."

The result was a perceived increased intensity, Earnhardt said.

But he admits he's been a little on edge since his Aug. 28 win at Bristol, which snapped a six-week slump for him.

After opening the season with a Daytona 500 victory, Earnhardt added two more wins by early May that put him on top of the points standings. But he lost the lead by June, and burns he suffered when he crashed while practicing for a non-NASCAR race harmed the No. 8 Chevrolet team.

Earnhardt needed a relief driver in consecutive races because the pain from his burns was so intense, and his team struggled to create setups he was comfortable with.

By the start of August, his season was in severe jeopardy. He was locked into a spot in the championship chase, but didn't consider himself a legitimate contender.

His win at Bristol changed that.

"It started to grow right at the Bristol win. When my legs weren't feeling too good, I really didn't want to be in the race car. That worried me," he said. "But we got through the summer and went back to Bristol and won that race. We had such a good weekend winning the Busch race and the Cup race, it was instantly a huge jump in confidence.

"We're in a streak where we're going to finish this season out pretty spectacularly, and hopefully with the championship. I really feel like we can win it."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., background, and Kurt Busch are tied for the lead in NASCAR's new championship format.Tony Stewart, front, slams into side of Greg Biffle's car at New Hampshire International Speedway in last Sunday's Sylvania 300, the first race of NASCAR's new 10-man, 10-race championship playoff.