Kyle Busch held off reigning champion Jimmie Johnson in a green-white-checkered finish at Michigan to clinch a spot in this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver claimed the lead from his Hendrick Motorsports rival, who had been up front since the penultimate restart with 13 laps remaining, thanks to a timely final pit stop right before the last caution that placed him ahead once the front runners pitted for the last time.
Johnson initially took advantage of the battle for second place following the penultimate restart but as Busch was able to get the better of Hendrick's Jeff Gordon and Roush Fenway's Matt Kenseth in the battle for second place, he quickly started eating into Johnson's lead. Although it took him a few laps once he caught the No. 48 car, he finally overtook him at Turn 2, with Johnson unable to fight back.
On the final restart for the last two laps of racing, Busch was superior and pulled away to claim his 23rd Cup career win, which locks him into contention for this year's title through a wild card entry, which he most likely will not need as he may safely enter the play-off through his points position, for he currently leads the drivers' ranking.
"That [penultimate] restart there, I think I restarted fourth, and Jimmie was gone, like in three laps. I was like, 'Holy cow!'" said Busch. "I didn't think there was any way I was going to run him back down. Our car was good on the long run. I felt comfortable running my pace, trying to get closer to him.
"When I got about three lengths back, I stalled out. I'm like, 'C'mon, man!. Go high, go low.' I was all over the place trying to build speed.
"Finally was able to do that and power by Jimmie and get by him. Once I got by him, I just picked the top [racing line]. That's where I wanted to be anyway. I could run some consistent times up there that were faster than him and drive away a little bit."
Johnson lamented being unable to make the most of his team's great strategy call ahead of the final round of pit stops. His second place moves him up a spot in the championship but he still has only one win to his name in a season when race victories will help secure Chase positions. Michigan also remains one of only five tracks where Johnson has yet to win a Cup race.
"Once I was up front in the clean air the balance of the car was a bit too loose," said Johnson. "I got away from Kyle but I was loose and I knew he was going to come at some point and he showed up. [I'm] disappointed that I didn't win but a very good effort for the team especially when you look at where we started the race and where we finished."
Penske's Brad Keselowski rounded out yet another good weekend by finishing third, moving up two more spots in the championship and closer to the top 10 in the points. Keselowski's result means he has the best finishing record of any driver in the past four weeks, as he continues to build momentum toward the playoff series. He was a top-five contender all day long but did not quite get the chance to show what he could have done in clean air.
"Wish I had something more for the 48 and 18 there at the end, but it was just really kind of watching and hoping someone would make a mistake," said Keselowski about the final restart. "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."
Veteran Mark Martin, a five-time Michigan winner, was the fastest car on the last long green-flag run, but did not have chance to contend for victory. A two-tire call early on gave him track position that he subsequently kept, being a contender on a day where Hendrick Motorsports excelled, all its cars running solidly in the top 10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was set for a top-10 finish but dropped to 14th over the final laps after pitting during the last caution.
His teammate Gordon led 50 laps and showed enough pace to be a threat, but overheating issues due to rubbish in the grille of his car somewhat hampered his progress at different times throughout the race. He was sixth in the end behind Stewart Haas' Ryan Newman, who made progress on the final restart after pitting for two new tires on the last caution. Making a similar move, Red Bull's Kasey Kahne was seventh at the flag ahead of RCR's Clint Bowyer and Newman's teammate Tony Stewart.
Kenseth was the best of the Roush roster in 10th, a disappointing result given that between him and his teammate Greg Biffle, the squad led more than half the distance. Kenseth had a poor final restart while Biffle blamed a bad set of tires for his debacle, having led for 86 of the 203 laps. To make matters worse for Roush, its leading championship contender Carl Edwards retired with an engine problem.
With only three races left before the Chase, Denny Hamlin is in further risk of missing the Chase after hitting the wall and being forced to pit for lengthy repairs. He finished 35th and slid down to 14th in the points despite still provisionally holding on to the final wild card entry thanks to his Michigan win from earlier in the year.
Results - 203 laps:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota 2h41m26.000s
2. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet + 0.568s
3. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 0.788s
4. Mark Martin Hendrick Chevrolet + 1.037s
5. Ryan Newman Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 1.826s
6. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 1.949s
7. Kasey Kahne Red Bull Toyota + 2.468s
8. Clint Bowyer Childress Chevrolet + 2.473s
9. Tony Stewart Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 2.616s
10. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford + 3.034s
11. AJ Allmendinger Petty Ford + 3.143s
12. David Ragan Roush Fenway Ford + 3.198s
13. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 3.413s
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 3.795s
15. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 3.841s
16. Brian Vickers Red Bull Toyota + 3.845s
17. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 4.016s
18. David Reutimann Waltrip Toyota + 4.017s
19. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 4.019s
20. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 4.025s
21. Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota + 4.105s
22. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 4.230s
23. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 4.389s
24. Trevor Bayne Wood Brothers Ford + 4.657s
25. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 4.770s
26. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 4.822s
27. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 4.903s
28. Travis Kvapil Front Row Ford + 1 laps
29. Andy Lally TRG Chevrolet + 1 laps
30. Ken Schrader FAS Lane Ford + 1 laps
31. Landon Cassill Phoenix Chevrolet + 2 laps
32. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 2 laps
33. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 5 laps
Kurt Busch Penske Dodge 197 laps
Denny Hamlin* Gibbs Toyota 188 laps
Carl Edwards* Roush Fenway Ford 174 laps
Casey Mears Germain Toyota 32 laps
Tony Raines Max Q Ford 26 laps
Todd Bodine HP Toyota 21 laps
David Stremme Inception Chevrolet 20 laps
Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 18 laps
Mike Skinner Germain Toyota 14 laps
JJ Yeley Front Row Ford 11 laps
* Running again at finish