Kyle Busch outran five-time-defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson to the checkered flag in a green-white-checkered, two-lap sprint to the finish on Sunday to claim his fourth Cup victory of the season as well as the top spot in the drivers' standings surpassing Carl Edwards.
With four wins in his 23 regular-season starts in the Sprint Cup Series, the younger Busch brother becomes the first driver to clinch a place in the Chase for the Cup championship round, which begins a month from now at Chicagoland Speedway. Brad Keselowski, injured ankle and all, closely followed Johnson across the finish line in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speeday. Veteran NASCAR driver Mark Martin was fourth, ahead of Ryan Newman, rounding out the top-five finishers.
Edwards, who had held the top spot in the Cup standings for most of the 2011 season, experienced mechanical engine problems practically right from the start. The problems forced the Columbia, Mo., native to retreat to the garage on lap 36 of the scheduled 200 for an extended period. Edwards finished the race at Michigan 29 laps down in 36th place and fell to third place in the standings, tied with Kevin Harvick, 39 points behind the new leader, Kyle Busch.
Busch's four wins on the Cup circuit this season are one more than Harvick and two better than Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth, both with two wins on the year. His victory Sunday at Michigan, however, was his first there in 13 previous starts.
"It's awesome," Busch said in his postrace interview with the Sporting News. "That's what we wanted. We wanted to make sure that we could come out here and win races and have the opportunity to go for broke."
Busch's No. 18 Toyota, owned by Joe Gibbs Racing, did not run particularly well in practice on Saturday, qualifying 17th in the starting lineup. And in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400, the No. 18 Toyota led only twice for just 22 laps, including the final 16.
"We (crew chief Dave Rogers and Busch) went over things last night and talked a lot about what we could do to the car to make it better, thought smartly about our changes for today, and we came out here strong," Busch said.
Second-place Jimmie Johnson also is winless at Michigan International Speedway, one of only five tracks on the current Sprint Cup schedule where he has not taken the checkered flag. Seeking to defend his Sprint Cup championship for an unprecedented sixth consecutive year, Johnson inherited the lead on the restart on lap 173. The No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports made a fortuitous pit stop just ahead of the fourth caution of the day and was able to stay out on track while the cars ahead of him pitted under the yellow.
Busch made a couple of runs at Johnson, but wasn't able to get by him until Turn 1, 12 laps from the finish in the regulation race. "The car was really loose at the start of the race," Johnson said. "I drove up through the field, and crew chief (Chad Knaus) made a great call to get me to pit road before that caution came out. I gave us a shot at the win, but once I was up front in the clean air the balance of the car was a bit too loose."
Not all of the Joe Gibbs race team had as good a day as Busch had. Denny Hamlin brushed up hard against the wall on lap 122, which forced him to pit road. The No. 11 Toyota finished 35th, just one spot ahead of Edwards. But even worse, it dropped him from 12th to 14th in the standings. Hamlin still holds the provisional 12th and final wild-card spot in the Chase for the Cup by virtue of recording his one and only win this year at the first Michigan race in June. But if Paul Menard (currently 18th in the standings) or David Ragan (20th) win one of the last three regular-season races and Hamlin doesn't get another victory, the No. 11 could find itself outside of the 12-car Chase field.
Clint Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan., cracked back into the top ten at Michigan, his ninth top-ten finish of the season, coming in ninth. Bowyer, a member of the Richard Childress Racing team, currently sits 11th in the standings, but is in danger of missing the cut in the race for the Chase because he is without a win in Sprint Cup this season.
By finishing third in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400, Kesleowski extended his streak of top-three finishes to three consecutive races, and it's the fourth straight race the No. 2 car has been in the top 10.
The Sprint Cup Series moves to short-track racing next weekend, with the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn.