DOVER, Del. (AP) _ Jeff Burton's winless streak is over and a week of controversy is behind him. Up ahead: A run to the Nextel Cup title, with a whole lot less competition to worry about.
Burton finally led the lap that matters Sunday, finding his way back to Victory Lane at Dover International Speedway after a thrilling late battle with Matt Kenseth. The win parked Burton in the lead of NASCAR's Chase for the championship and ended his 175-race winless streak.
``We have positioned ourselves to have something special happen, but just because we're in this position doesn't mean something special is going to happen,'' said Burton, who took a slim, six-point lead over Jeff Gordon, the polesitter, who finished third. ``Eight races is an eternity.''
Even so, Sunday's Dover 400 likely ended the title hopes of Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. _ each of whom had his own problems to fall all but out of the Chase.
Burton nipped at Kenseth's bumper in the waning laps, ducked beneath him, pulled side-by-side and still kept falling just behind. It wasn't until six laps were left that Burton finally scooted by with the critical pass.
``I knew the sooner we got by Matt, the better chance we had of winning,'' Burton said.
All that work to pass Kenseth was for naught, though: He ran out of gas.
``We gambled for fuel, but there was really no reason to gamble because we had the best car,'' Kenseth said. ``Even if we would have lost two or three spots, we had the car to beat, so I don't understand how you can run out of fuel.''
Kenseth failed in his bid for a clean sweep at Dover, but he certainly isn't out of contention for the championship. He finished 10th and remained stuck in third in the points race after losing a gamble that he could drive the final 100-plus laps without a pit stop.
Burton and his Richard Childress racing teammate Kevin Harvick spent this weekend denying a Speed TV report that claimed their teams manipulated wheels to gain a performance advantage in New Hampshire. Both drivers insisted it wouldn't be a distraction, and Burton came out with something to prove.
``I was dreading coming back to the garage looking (my crew) in the eye and not winning the race,'' Burton said.
Certainly, that was a feeling he'd experienced too many times this decade. Burton came in with a whopping 637 laps led this season, but no victories. He wasn't won a Cup race since Oct. 28, 2001. It was his 18th career victory.
``The winless streak, I don't even know what it is. I don't think about it,'' Burton said.
Now it's at 0.
Carl Edwards finished second. Gordon moved up two spots in the Chase with his third-place finish. Non-Chase drivers finished fourth through eighth before rookie Denny Hamlin, who took ninth. Hamlin fell from second to fourth in the points standings.
Even though he sat on the pole, Gordon failed to lead a lap and did not gain any bonus points. Ryan Newman quickly passed him and led the first lap of the race.
``I really wanted those five points,'' Gordon said. ``I hope this thing at the end of the season doesn't come down to five points or I'll really be kicking myself.''
Harvick, the points leader coming into Sunday, was knocked out of the race with a blown engine. Harvick, who won the last two races, was 32nd and plummeted to fifth overall.
It wasn't much easier for the rest of the contenders on The Monster Mile.
Make that former contenders.
Kahne plowed into another car. Busch blew an engine. Earnhardt battled an unruly setup. One by one, drivers already near the rear of the Chase standings dropped out or dropped back.
Kahne wrecked with defending champion Tony Stewart, who did not make the Chase this season, only 11 laps into the race. His car spent more than an hour in the garage before he returned. Busch retired his No. 5 before the halfway point with engine problems.
Both declared their hopes for a championship dead.
``We're done,'' Busch said.
Added Kahne: ``No more championship.''
Almost all the Chase drivers ran into some sort of trouble. Jimmie Johnson's crew had a pit road tire mishap that dropped him all the way back to 40th. He steadily raced his way back to the front on the high-banked concrete oval, and finished 13th. Earnhardt had all sorts of tire issues and finished 21st. Earnhardt is seventh and Johnson eighth in the points standings.
It seems there will be only a handful of contenders down the stretch. The field could thin out even more next week at Kansas.
``When we get down to three to go and I'm still in position, we can think about it and talk about it,'' Burton said.
Kenseth grabbed the lead on lap 264 after leader Greg Biffle pitted on a green. Kenseth pitted under yellow for four tires and fuel with 101 laps left and tried to make it the rest of the way.
Kenseth had a similar gamble pay off in his June win at Dover. In that one, he overruled his crew chief who wanted Kenseth to pit on the final caution, and zipped past contenders for the win. This time, Kenseth and crew chief Robbie Reiser were in agreement, and it paid off _ for Burton.