Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. reinforced their front-running status. Matt Kenseth may have seen his chances of repeating as NASCAR champion submerged in a pile of tires and sand. And Ryan Newman resuscitated his still fragile title hopes by winning Sunday's MBNA America 400 on another afternoon of dizzying scoreboard watching at Dover International Speedway.
Stage two of NASCAR's 10-car, 10-race playoff lacked the fireworks of last weekend's New Hampshire race, in which Newman blew an engine and championship contenders Jeremy Mayfield and Tony Stewart were sidelined by a crash not of their own making.
There were no multi-car wrecks on Sunday, with the sellout crowd having to make do with Brian Vickers and Jeff Burton both spinning out into the outer wall. (Each was evaluated and released from the infield care center.)
Sunday's race also lacked any hint of drama near the front, with Newman taking the lead in the first lap and holding it for 325 of the 400 laps.
But while Newman ruled Sunday's race, the overall standings churned as surely as his victorious No. 12 Dodge during his victory burnout.
NASCAR's new championship format -- which separated 10 drivers into a tightly bunched group two weeks ago -- was devised in part to relieve the late-season tedium of a runaway points lead. After Dover's fall race last season, for example, Kenseth -- who monopolized first place over the final 33 races -- had a 436-point lead over his closest challenger.
Fast forward to Sunday, when the series points lead changed for the fourth time in as many weeks, with Gordon moving past Busch by a single point after placing third.
The top three drivers -- Gordon, Busch and Earnhardt -- are now separated by 18 points. Two other championship contenders -- Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin -- are less than 60 points back.
And with eight of the 10 contenders finishing in the top 10 on Sunday, virtually every modest move carried championship implications.
"The bottom line is, everybody got in this position because they're capable of running in the top 10," Newman said.
But no one, as it turned out, was capable of running with Newman on Sunday. He lapped all but seven of his competitors and finished a comfortable 8.149 seconds in front of the second-place Martin. Newman, who has won three of the last four races at this track, said the victory will erase much of last week's disappointment for his entire team.
"When you can win like we did today you don't need a pep talk; everything takes care of itself," he said. "The guys were pumped up coming into this race, and they're over-pumped right now, I'm pretty sure."
This being NASCAR, there was also the requisite post-race finger pointing, most notably from Jimmie Johnson, who was penalized for speeding on pit road near the race's midway point and dropped from fourth to 19th place. He never recovered, finishing 10th.
After bringing their concerns to the NASCAR hauler after the race, both Johnson and team owner Rick Hendrick called for improved technology to calculate pit road speeds, which are currently determined by race officials holding stopwatches.
"We got hit with something that I don't think was fair and I don't think was right," Johnson said. "It's just he said-she said right now, because we don't have anything to prove otherwise."
"We're living in the '50s," complained Hendrick. "We used stopwatches back when I started 20 years ago."
Pit road, in fact, was the center of attention for much of the afternoon. David Hoots, NASCAR's managing event director, cautioned the drivers during their pre-race meeting that Dover's pit road entrance approaches very quickly, but the warning couldn't save Kenseth. After offering the most serious challenge to Newman, leading for 58 laps, Kenseth had trouble with his front right tire and tried to enter pit road for a green flag stop.
Instead, he lost control and slammed headfirst into the protective barrier, knocking over tires, crumpling his hood and sending his car into the garage. The resulting red flag stopped the race for 12 minutes.
Kenseth, who called his mishap "just a dumb mistake," later shepherded his bandaged car to 32nd place, but he fell from fourth to seventh in the standings.
Another playoff driver, Elliott Sadler, was running 10th late in the race when he also had tire trouble. He struggled to enter pit road cleanly and said he was forced to exceed the 35-mph speed limit to keep from reenacting Kenseth's bad trip. Sadler's penalty -- another slow voyage through pit road -- ultimately landed him in 20th place.
Before the 10-race shootout began, some drivers speculated that a single disaster could doom their chances, under the assumption that at least one of their peers would survive the 10 races unscathed. The conventional wisdom, though, might be changing, with half the championship field having run into trouble after just two weeks.
Gordon crew chief Robbie Loomis announced that "anybody who says Matt Kenseth is done is a real fool," and seven days after his blown engine, Newman was again talking about winning a title.
"If we can finish in the top five these last [eight] races . . . then I can pretty much guarantee us a championship," he said.