Kyle Busch blew past Jimmie Johnson to take the lead of the Pure Michigan 400 Sprint Cup race with 12 laps to go, and then coped with a late caution and green-white-chequered restart extending the race an additional three laps without giving Johnson or the rest of the field an opportunity to answer back.
"It's awesome," said a delighted Busch. "That's what we wanted. We wanted to make sure that we could come out here and win races!"
The win gives Kyle his 26th Cup win, tying his brother Kurt's tally in the series. It's also Kyle's first Cup win at the two-mile Michigan International Speedway oval, and puts him through to the Chase post-season championship shootout.
Busch had only qualified in 17th place on Friday and wasn't particularly happy in final practice on Saturday despite ending up posting the second fastest time, but the #18 team worked overnight to find the necessary tweaks: "We struggled a bit, and I kind of got down on things," said Busch of his practice sessions. "We 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."
It was pole sitter Greg Biffle who led the field to the green flag at shortly after 1.15pm on Sunday afternoon, starting alongside Matt Kenseth on the front row for the Pure Michigan 400. Biffle looked impressively strong through the opening laps and built up a strong lead over Kenseth before a caution for debris on lap 30.
By contrast, Kyle was fairly anonymous during this time and it was Kevin Harvick who was on the way up and having gained ten spots within the first 17 laps, while Denny Hamlin was slowly sinking back down the running order, dropping out of the top ten having started from the second row using his new engine built by Toyota Racing Development for the first time rather than the Joe Gibbs Racing engine plant.
At the restart it was still Biffle and Kenseth in front ahead of Brad Keselowski, but no sooner had the green flag come out than Carl Edwards was back on pit road and heading to the garage area with engine trouble: "I don't know what was wrong with it. It was running on seven cylinders," said Edwards. "We changed a bunch of stuff and then it was fixed ... It was probably something with some electrical connection or a coil or something."
Edwards was able to return to the race eventually but would finish up in 36th place, 29 laps down because of the lengthy repair time. "We were prepared for this race to go bad," he said. "We were prepared for something - but we weren't expecting that. We weren't expecting a failure like that." As a result, Edwards drops out of the Sprint Cup championship lead that he had shared with Busch coming into Michigan, and is now tied on points in third place.
The next 20 laps were fairly uneventful, although Kyle was now making progress and was up to 12th, and Clint Bowyer was on a charge up over 20 places before a second debris caution came out on lap 53 just after Matt Kenseth had finally succeeded in stealing the lead from Biffle.
It was Mark Martin who beat them both off pit road to lead at the green flag, but the status quo was quickly restored when Biffle cruised right back into the lead first lap round. Also now gathering around the top six positions were Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch, while finally Jimmie Johnson was feeling happier in the #48 and starting to work his way through the field from his grid position of 19th and he too was getting up toward the top six during this stint.
Despite Kurt Busch making some contact with the wall and unconfirmed debris reported on the track at one point, there were no cautions out in time to help the teams out when it came to the next round of pit stops, which were held under green from around lap 86. Jimmie Johnson nearly threw away all his good work when he had difficulty getting fully into his pit box, but the NASCAR officials ruled his "three wheels in" position to be legal and he got away without any penalties.
Greg Biffle had held a 3.641s lead before the pit stops, but once Biffle came out again following his own stop he suddenly found himself passed for the lead in turn 1 on lap 95 by Kyle Busch. The two continued to joust for the position and it went back and forth until the third yellow finally came out again (for debris) on lap 103.
Despite the relatively short time since their previous stops, the leaders were all keen to have proper pit stops under cautions and duly filed back into pit road, but some - including Kasey Kahne - opted to go for two tyres only this time around. That put Kahne out in front at the restart followed by Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. Busch and Biffle both dropped back, and while Busch soon set about regaining lost positions there was something never quite the same again about the #16.
"I don't know what happened, I'm not sure," admitted Biffle when asked after the race why his pace had suddenly disappeared in the second half of the race. "I have a feeling we kinda got a bum set of tires and then we got off on our adjustments. It was really really tight and we adjusted on it and then I think I was too loose the rest of the day but I really don't know what happened to be honest with you. I really don't know right now."
Kenseth took over the lead from Kahne almost at once, but on lap 114 Jeff Gordon took to the front for the first time of the afternoon. The track ran green from there through to lap 168 despite a number of incidents, including Denny Hamlin scraping the wall in turns 1 and 2 on lap 122, causing left-front damage which affected the splitter bar and also led to a flat tyre. That led to two quick pit stops in succession under green and finally an even longer visit to the garage to sort out the accumulating problems.
"We were fighting the car all day, from tight to loose and back and forth," Hamlin explained. "Our car just really struggled on corner entry on being loose. I was in a pack of cars there and tried to enter the corner with a little bit more speed and just got too loose and got into the wall."
It put Hamlin 15 laps down and is a devastating blow to his hopes of making the Chase for the last five years. "This is the first time where I've struggled and we're struggling to find the balance of the car that I want," he said. "It's just part of learning. I'm not going to make any excuses and I'm not going to sugar-coat it because it's on me to try to get better at this one."
Not even Kevin Harvick brushing the wall on lap 128, Brad Keselowski complaining that the #2 felt like it had a flat on lap 136 or a confirmed sighting of debris (a stray water bottle on track) would provoke NASCAR officials into bringing out the yellow during this period: perhaps the threat of weather in the area was staying their usual habit of throwing a caution at the merest hint of anything untoward on the track at ovals.
That meant more green flag pit stops commenced on lap 137 with Kurt Busch one of the first takers after hitting the wall and needing his front fender readjusting. Jeff Gordon took back the lead after the stops, with Kyle Busch pushing his way back up to second ahead of Kenseth but still well off the back of Gordon. He had just about reeled in the #24 by the time the next caution came out on lap 168, which was the result of a very slow Dave Blaney causing a hazard as he tried to limp back to pit road.
It was a stroke of luck for Jimmie Johnson, who had already taken to pit road for his last fuel-and-tyres visit of the day. That meant he could go ahead and complete the stop, while everyone else had to wait for pit road to reopen: once they did, Johnson duly took the lead for the restart ahead of Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon.
All the drivers sensed this was the pivotal moment of the race: Johnson made the most of the clean air and leapt away in front leaving a three-wide battle for second. Busch initially won out over Gordon only to then trip over Kenseth, dropping him briefly down to fourth until he powered his way back past them both through the high line of turn 4. But by this time, Johnson was off in the distance and Kyle admitted he thought that was that as far as fighting for the race win went.
"I didn't think there was any way I was going to run him back down," he said. "I think I restarted fourth, and Jimmie was gone, like in three laps. I was like, 'holy cow!'"
But once free of competition for second, Kyle was soon hunting down Johnson for the lead and it was clear that this was going to be a two-horse race unless there was a late caution to close the cars up again. Kyle had the stronger car and took the lead again through turn 1 on lap 188, but Johnson stayed all over the back of the #18 and was determined to hold on for a last-lap lunge.
As the end of the race came within sight, it was Kyle's brother Kurt who was hanging on for dear life further down the field in 11th, getting sideways on lap 191 and only just saving the car from the full-scale wreck. His luck ran out six laps later and he put the #22 into the wall on lap 197, forcing the fifth and final caution of the day - and inadvertently wiping out the safety margin his brother Kyle had been eking out in the lead. The #18 would now have to survive a green-white-chequered restart, just days after losing at Watkins Glen in a similar situation.
But this time there was no problem for Kyle: he blasted away from Johnson without a problem, took the white flag and then had an easy lap to the chequered as well, albeit only by 0.568s over the #48. "Man, you know it's so awesome to finally win here at Michigan and get Toyota in victory lane here at Michigan!," said Busch. "It feels good being so close to Detroit and everything," he said, referring to the headquarters of rival engine manufacturers Ford and Chevrolet.
"Today I could run the bottom and I could run the top, I just had to move around and figure things out," he said. "It's great to be here in victory lane in Michigan and we clinched our Chase berth ... It's awesome, that's what we wanted."
Johnson's second place means he once again missed out on a win at Michigan - the five-time Cup champion has never won here. But any disappointment he might have felt over that will have been tempered by his rising to second place in the Cup points
, ten points back from Busch at the top but 29pts clear of Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards behind him.
"Chad made a great call to get me to pit road before that caution came out," Johnson said, referring to his longtime crew chief Chad Knaus. "It gave us the shot at the win, but once I was up front in the clean air the balance of the car was a bit too loose ... and I knew [Kyle] was going to come at some point and he showed up."
Brad Keselowski finished in the top three for the third race in succession , despite struggling in the second part of the race with a car that was absurdly loose. "Wish I had something more for the #48 and #18 there at the end," he said, but admitted that he had nothing in reserve for them unless they made a mistake and took each other out. "I couldn't do anything on my own merit. Still a fun race, proud of the effort. The last few weeks are more than I could ever ask for."
It's the ability to take a below-par car and still put it in the top three that truly shows a driver's capabilities, and Keselowski was duly rewarded with a boost in the Cup championship standings to 12th place. At this rate, he might not even have to rely on the wildcard entry to the Chase he would almost certainly be in line for with his two race wins of the year.
"I would like to make the top ten on our own merits if for no other reason than to push away all the naysayers of the wild card system, not to have to hear that," he said, but added that "I'm a big fan of the wild card ... I'd be proud either way to be in the Chase."
There's no such 'maybe' about Kyle Busch: his victory confirms him through to the Chase come what may, the first and so far only driver to have a firm Chase spot. Although his lead of 129pts over 11th-placed Clint Bowyer isn't quite enough to make it mathematically impossible for him to drop outside the top ten, his four wins means that even if he were to drop out of the top ten he would definitely qualify on the wildcard system.
In practice, Busch won't need the wildcard system to get him through to the Chase, and that means the four wins will instead be converted into bonus points when the standings are reset after Richmond on September 10. That puts him at least 3pts ahead of anyone else as things stand, which could prove a crucial advantage in that last ten-race shootout at the end of the year.
Full race results and positions