DOVER, Del. (AP) - Carl Edwards ran so far out in front he was able to avoid the kind of crashes and mechanical woes that plagued so many other Chase drivers on the track.
Not until Edwards brought his No. 99 Ford from Victory Lane at Dover International Speedway to the garage did he run into the kind of trouble that could derail his title hopes.
Edwards' victory in the Dodge Dealers 400 on Sunday was spoiled after his car flunked inspection because the right rear fender was too low, meaning a likely fine and loss of crucial points. Edwards is in third place in the Chase for the championship standings, only three points behind series leader Jeff Gordon, so even the lightest penalty could be a brutal blow to his title run.
Edwards knows the only way to make up the deficit is with more performances like Sunday. "You're really going to have to win races to be leading the points at the end," he said.
NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Potson said there was no evidence of intentional tampering with Edwards' car.
"This is a height violation. It is not one where we believe the structure of the body has been manipulated," he said.
Edwards had dodged the smoke, the skids and the wrecks to win his first Chase race in two seasons and give team owner Jack Roush his 100th career victory.
The probable penalty will only further jumble a points race that has the top six drivers separated by a mere 18 points. Gordon seized the points lead, with Tony Stewart second. Jimmie Johnson, who led the standings entering the day, fell to fourth.
"It was a crazy day at Dover and somehow we came out of it with the points lead," Gordon said.
It sure was crazy. Just ask Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth or Denny Hamlin. Smoked or smashed cars derailed their pursuit for a Nextel Cup title and the race was a disaster for most of the championship field.
Edwards' late surge at Dover helped him avoid a massive wreck with 14 laps left that affected Chase contenders Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Johnson and a few other drivers in the 400-mile race on the concrete track.
Kurt Busch triggered the pileup after his car hit the wall on the straightaway and ricocheted back on the track. The big crash left Truex's crumpled car on the track while the race was red-flagged for nearly 12 minutes.
The cars can be repaired. The damage done in the points race in the pursuit for the Nextel Cup title might be too much to overcome for some of the drivers.
"It's tough when everybody puts a lot of hard work into building these cars, and to just have one little problem like that took out a lot of cars," Kurt Busch said.
Busch was far from the only driver who ran into trouble.
Matt Kenseth's car was smoking and Denny Hamlin was fuming. Johnson and Kevin Harvick had tire woes. One by one, drivers in the Chase dropped back and dropped out.
That left Edwards as one of the few Chase drivers left standing in the race that had 13 caution periods. Only four Chase drivers finished in the top 10 after they filled the first seven spots last week at New Hampshire.
"I think right now this Chase is turning into what people predicted," Edwards said. "The depth is such that I think you're going to have to win races."
Greg Biffle was second and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third. Mark Martin and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five in a Car of Tomorrow race.
Once the second race in the 10-race Chase was over, the points differential among the top seven drivers was minuscule, guaranteeing heated jostling for positions down the stretch. Gordon holds a two-point lead over Stewart and leads Clint Bowyer in sixth by 18 points.
"There were a lot of good cars today that are in the Chase that had a bad day and not having a bad day is what you've got to do," said Stewart, who was ninth.
Kenseth, Edwards' Roush Fenway Racing teammate, had the car to beat all race and was absolutely dominating, even with an alternator problem early on. He was running up front until a busted valve cooked his car and his shot at victory. Kenseth went from running for a win to just hoping he could salvage a top-10 finish.
But seconds after the race went back to green with 27 laps left, smoke blew out the back of the car and he was forced out of the race, finishing a woeful 35th.
"We were in a good spot to win the race and we were in a good spot to gain some points for the championship," Kenseth said.
Instead, he was added to the list of top Chase drivers who had their title hopes all but finished.
Hamlin wrecked with Kyle Petty and the two drivers got into a brief skirmish in the garage. Petty slapped Hamlin's helmet as he walked away from the driver.
"You smack me in the helmet and I'm going to punch you in the face," Hamlin said. "So I'd like for him to call me some time this week."
Hamlin placed 38th - the worst of all Chase drivers - and is stuck in 12th place in the standings, effectively ending his bid for a championship.
Bowyer followed his first career victory last week at New Hampshire with a 12th-place finish and fell from fourth to sixth in the standings.
Jeff Burton finished seventh and moved up three spots in the Chase standings to eighth. Gordon was 11th and Truex and Johnson were 13th and 14th; Harvick was 20th; Kurt Busch 29th.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)