The big three have the young guns in their rearview mirrors

DOVER, Del. -- What was supposed to be a showdown between Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart for the Nextel Cup championship is being overshadowed somewhat by a bunch of up-and-comers.

Carl Edwards won Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway to move within three points -- at least until NASCAR penalizes him 25 points because his car was too low -- of leader Gordon.

His victory came a week after Clint Bowyer collected his first career Cup win to move from 12th to fourth in the standings.

What of Johnson, Gordon and Stewart, who have a combined seven titles between them?

Johnson cut a tire on Lap 187 of this 400-lap event to go two laps down. Then the pole-sitter was caught up in a 12-car accident with 14 laps remaining to cap off a 14th-place finish that left him in fourth place, four points out of the lead.

Gordon started 27th and finished an uneventful 11th that would have been much worse had the late accident not eliminated many of those ahead of him. The regular-season points champion went from a tie with Johnson to two points ahead of Stewart.

Stewart started 28th and finished ninth, again thanks to the big one near the end.

None of the big three finished on the lead lap or led a lap.

Or even seriously threatened to.

None seemed worried.

"We're two races into a 10-race Chase," Stewart said. "Let's don't try to overanalyze it all yet. Let us run the Chase. Every week, you guys keep wanting to reinvent the wheel, overanalyzing and theorizing this and that.

"We're race car drivers. We're not philosophers."

Were they, one might argue that drivers such as Edwards and Bowyer are winning because they have more of a nothing-to-lose attitude. That their teams are willing to take more chances with setups and go all out for wins instead of playing it safe and racing for points.

Johnson, Gordon and Stewart would deny that theory and argue that they are trying to win as hard as the next guy.

One thing is obvious, at least to Edwards.

"This Chase is turning into what people predicted," he said. "The depth is such that I think you're going to have to win races. We're two races in and ... to have the top seven guys within [46] points … that's insane."

Two years ago, Edwards finished the Chase 35 points out and tied for second behind Stewart, He didn't enter the 10-race playoff thinking he was going to win races, even though he made it interesting by winning twice.

Now, he believes wins are essential.

"You're going to have to win races to be leading the points at the end," he predicted. "And I wouldn't have said that before it started, really, looking at the past Chases, but this one's for sure that way."

Again, the big three don't seem concerned that they haven't been a threat to enter Victory Lane.

"It wasn't pretty, but it was effective because we survived," said Gordon, who won four races in the regular season. "So to me, that's what this race is all about is survival and putting up a great team effort."

Stewart was almost giddy about his finish.

"We had a 30th-place car for 200 laps and then we ended up with a top-10," he said. "If there was one place I was worried about, it was here. So to salvage a top-10 out of it with the way we started the day, and to stay as close as we did to the point lead and be second in the points right now, that's exactly what we needed to do.

We're two races into a 10-race Chase. Let's don't try to overanalyze it all yet.

Tony Stewart

"There were a lot of good cars that are in the Chase that had a bad day today, and not having a bad day is what you've got to do."

Kurt Busch has had two bad days, leaving him in 11th place, 151 points behind Gordon, after Sunday's 29th-place finish.

Matt Kenseth's good day turned bad when he lost an engine late while running second. He finished 35th and fell three spots to 10th in points, 116 out of the lead.

Denny Hamlin saw his good day turn bad when he ran over Kyle Petty halfway into the race to finish 38th. He also lost three spots, falling to 12th and 158 behind.

"It is very hard not to make mistakes," Edwards said. "In the Busch race [Saturday], I took a gamble passing a lapped car and got wrecked, and everybody said, 'Don't worry. It's their fault.' But you've got to learn not to put yourself in those positions."

Not that it was Busch's fault last week when he had engine problems or this week when a cut tire sparked the big wreck at the end.

The same with Kenseth's engine. He was in position to win when he lost a cylinder while in the lead, so you can't say he was racing any less aggressively than Edwards or Bowyer the past two weeks.

In fact, Kenseth appeared to be racing harder than normal.

"My dad told me from day one, 'There's a thousand ways to lose a race, and you can only control some of them,' so you just have to control what you can control," Edwards said.

NASCAR certainly can't complain about the start of the Chase. The top six drivers are separated by only 18 points and only 46 separates the top seven.

And after Edwards is penalized, the big three will be ranked first, second and third and separated by only four points.

So maybe this will turn into the star-studded showdown many are anticipating.

Maybe we shouldn't, as Stewart said, overanalyze this just yet.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.