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Kyle Busch muscles to Win No. 4 of 2011, takes points lead
by Matt Taliaferro
There was no fuel mileage or weather-related strategy involved in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway — only pure, unadulterated horsepower. And Kyle Busch had the most of it, pulling away from Jimmie Johnson on a green-white-checker restart to win his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of 2011, and in the process, take the lead in the championship standings.
Of course, the first order of business for Busch was disposing of Johnson, whose ascension to the top of the pylon was a fortuitous one. He was the first driver to make his regularly scheduled pit stop under green flag conditions with 32 laps remaining. As he exited his stall, the yellow flag was displayed, and when the rest of the lead lap cars hit pit road under caution, Johnson assumed the lead.
He held that position — followed by Busch — after the green waved until a hard-charging Busch passed the five-time champion with 18 laps remaining. Busch drove away from there, but was drawn back to the field when his brother, Kurt, blew a tire and hit the Turn 1 wall with four laps to go.
Under the ensuing caution, the top 8, including Busch, Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, stayed on the track while a number of cars — led by eighth-place Ryan Newman — hit pit road for tires.
No amount of new tires, yellow flags or green-white-checker restarts would stop Busch, though. He dusted Johnson at the line when the green waved and walked away for a .568-second victory.
“I saw the 2 (Keselowski) was going to restart on the inside,” Busch said of the final restart. “I didn't know whether he was going to push the 48 (Johnson) or try to make it three-wide. I figured I'd just give myself the best opportunity to win, and that was just to run the topside, keep my momentum rolling up through Turns 1 and 2.
“When we got down in there (Turn 1), we were side-by-side a little bit. Jimmie had to pinch his car a little bit too much being the inside guy. Whether you get tight or loose, it's going to be hard to hold yourself off that outside guy. I figured I'd just give myself all the room that I needed to my outside in case I needed to run as high I could. There wasn't much debate from my side.”
With the win, Busch became the first driver to clinch a Chase berth and now leads the series with four wins this year.
“I feel like it's anybody's game right now still,” Busch said of the championship. “Although the 99 (Carl Edwards) had problems today, they can still come back. (The) 48 is going to be tough; 29 (Kevin Harvick) is going to be good. Hopefully, we can get our teammate in there with the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and he'll be good, too.”
Edwards and Hamlin — two drivers that had experienced a plethora of success at Michigan over the last few years — were both snakebit on Sunday. Edwards had engine issues early that dropped him 28 laps off the lead lap and finished 36th. Hamlin hit the wall with 71 laps to go when a tire went down and wound up 35th.
The poor showing dropped Edwards from the points lead to a tie for third, 39 markers behind Busch. Hamlin’s day may prove to be much more costly. Already on the playoff bubble, last year’s Chase runner-up slipped to 14th in the standings; his only saving grace being a win that — as of this week — would qualify him as a wild card Chase participant.
The other current wild card qualifier is Keselowski, who finished third, marking his third consecutive top-3 finish. At 12th in the standings, he owns two wins which lead any driver outside of the top 12 — and with apologies to Busch and his No. 18 crew, may be the hottest driver and team on the circuit.
“One good run breeds another good run,” Keselowski said. “I'm not sure how to quantify that — how or why. I think I'm probably a little too close to the fire to truly understand it. But (the last three weeks have) been amazing. It's been more than I could ever ask for and exactly what we were looking for out of our team here at Penske Racing and everyone that supports us.”
Three races remain in NASCAR’s regular season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart sit ninth and 10th in the standings and, despite not having a win, would be the final two to qualify for the Chase via points. Clint Bowyer is 11th, 24 points behind Stewart, but does not have a wild card win to fall back on as of yet. Keselowski, in 12th, is 72 back of Stewart, followed by Greg Biffle (-58), Hamlin (-59, one win) and AJ Allmendinger (-62). Paul Menard and David Ragan are the only other two drivers ranked 11th-20th that have a wild card win, but they sit mired in 18th (Menard) and 20th (Ragan).