BROOKLYN, Mich.—Michigan finally unrolled the welcome mat for Kyle Busch, the first official member of the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Busch got his first Sprint Cup Series victory at Michigan International Speedway in his 14th start at the 2.0-mile track, holding off Jimmie Johnson in a green-white-checkered-flag finish to win Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400.
Busch beat Johnson to the finish line by .568 seconds to claim his series-best fourth victory of the season and the 23rd of his career. Busch kept Johnson winless at Michigan, one of five active tracks on the Cup circuit where the five-time champion hasn’t been to victory lane.
Brad Keselowski continued his recent surge with a third-place run, followed by Mark Martin and Ryan Newman. Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth completed the top 10.
Busch clinched his berth in the Chase by virtue of the fourth win, which guarantees him at least a wild-card berth in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff. He also claimed sole possession of the series lead, by 10 points over Johnson, after Carl Edwards finished 36th because of electrical problems and dropped from a share of first to fourth in the standings.
“It’s awesome,” Busch said. “That’s what we wanted. We wanted make sure that we could come out here and win races and have the opportunity to go for broke.”
Busch’s car wasn’t particularly good in practice on Saturday, but that changed dramatically when he and crew chief Dave Rogers put their heads together after the final session.
“Yesterday we practiced, we struggled a bit, and I kind of got down on things, and Dave was right there to help me out and pick it up,” Busch said. “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.”
Busch held a comfortable lead over Johnson when Kurt Busch’s brush with the Turn 2 wall on Lap 197 caused the fifth and final caution of the race and forced a restart that took the event three laps past its scheduled distance of 200 laps.
By ducking into the pits for his final stop right before caution flew for the fourth time on Lap 168—after Dave Blaney slowed to a crawl on the backstretch—Johnson got his fuel and tire service out of the way and inherited the lead when everyone ahead of him came to the pits under the yellow.
Johnson chose the outside lane for a restart on Lap 173 and used the clean air to his advantage, pulling away to a lead of more than a second before Busch began to cut into his advantage. On Lap 188, Busch cleared Johnson into Turn 1 with what turned out to be the winning pass.
“(The car) was just really loose at the start of the race, and 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,” Johnson said. “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.
“I got away from Kyle but I was loose, and I knew he was going to come at some point and he showed up. Disappointed that I didn’t win, but a very good effort for the Lowe’s team especially when you look at where we started the race (19th) and where we finished.”
As good a day as it was for Busch, it was every bit as bad for Denny Hamlin, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. Hamlin brought his car to pit road on Lap 122 after scraping the wall in Turns 1 and 2. Hamlin finished 35th and dropped from 12th to 14th in the standings.
Though Hamlin still holds the second provisional wild-card spot, thanks to his victory at Michigan in June, he lost ground to the drivers pursuing him—one-time winners Paul Menard (18th) and David Ragan (20th).