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Kyle Busch edges Jimmie Johnson to win the Michigan 400...and we could see a lot of these two in the upcoming playoffs

 Kyle Busch in victory at Michigan. And ready to take the championship game right at Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 

   By Mike Mulhern


   BROOKLYN, Mich.
   Looks like the championship playoffs have already begun – and Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson are at the head of the class.
   In the standings and on the track.
   And Brad Keselowski is steaming up their rear view mirrors.

   That was Sunday's 1-2-3 here at Michigan International Speedway.
   While the official Sprint Cup chase cut is still three weeks off, after the Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond, the two at the top of the points were the top two in the final moments of the Michigan 400 – Busch edging Johnson…with Keselowski right behind them.
   It was Busch's fourth win of the season, and it may make up a bit for losing last week's green-white-checkered finish at Watkins Glen, after leading at the final restart. The win clinches a spot for Busch in the playoffs, and it ties him with his brother Kurt on the Sprint Cup victory list, both now with 23.
   Ironically it was Kurt, brushing the wall and then blowing a tire to bring out the last caution of the day, who put a Kyle Busch win in jeopardy.
   Kyle was leading at the yellow, on lap 198 of the scheduled 200, which went to lap 203 with a green-white-checkered overtime sprint.
   Down the stretch it was Kyle Busch versus Johnson, with Busch perhaps a tick quicker. But clean air makes such a difference at these speeds that when Johnson had the lead on a restart with 60 miles to go he could simply blow away from the pack.
   "I said 'Holy cow,' and I didn't know if I could ever run him back down," Kyle Busch said. But Busch's car was better on long runs, and 30 miles later Busch wheeled around for the lead, and he appeared to have victory well in hand until his brother's misfortune..

    Kyle Busch, in quite a turnaround this season, has matured into a championship contender. Here he's shaking hands with fans after Sunday's Michigan 400 victory (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 

  The final restart? Busch took the outside lane, giving Johnson and Keselowski the inside, somewhat surprisingly.
   "I saw that Brad was going to start third (on the inside), and I didn't know if he would push Jimmie or if he'd try to make it three-wide," Busch said.
   "So I figured I'd just give myself the best opportunity to win, and that was to run the 6:11 PM 8/21/2011top-side and keep my momentum rolling through turns one and two.
   "We got down in there side by side, and Jimmie had to pinch his car a little bit, being the inside guy, to hold yourself off the outside guy."
    And Busch had clear sailing from there.
    However teammate Denny Hamlin didn't fare nearly as well. In fact Hamlin's problems may well have knocked him out of this year's playoffs. He tagged the wall early, and after repairs he finished 35th. That dropped Hamlin out of the top-12. J.D. Gibbs, the team manager, calls it "discouraging.
   "But if anyone has the confidence and ability to bounce back, it's those guys."
    Hamlin nearly won the 2010 Cup championship but this season he has been quite ragged; Sunday he was running a non-Gibbs engine, a Toyota-Los Angeles TRD engine, instead of his usual Mark Cronquist motor.
    "We had to get this ship back up and pointing in the right direction," Hamlin said. "It's going to take a lot of hard work. But we'll try to get in there these last three races (until the playoff cut)."
   Hamlin says odds now are that he'll have to make the chase with one of the two wild cards slots….which means most likely he's got to win one of the next three races, Bristol, Atlanta or Richmond.
   "But to me, it's not worth making the chase if I'm not going to be effective in the chase," Hamlin said. "Right now we need to right our ship.
   "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."

   Brad Keselowski, the wild card in this year's championship chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Carl Edwards also had problems early Sunday, rare engine problems. His crew made lengthy repairs, but Edwards wound up making up no ground and finished 36th. However Edwards is solid in the points.
   However teammate Greg Biffle, who knows he's got to win a race, or two, to make the playoffs, is still scratching his head after dominating the first half of the race but then fading to finish a very disappointed 20th. "I really don't know what happened, to be honest with you, I really don't know," Biffle said.
   While much of the PR talk lately has been about making the playoff cut, and the fight back in the pack to make the chase, it may be time to start looking at the handful of men who actually have a legitimate shot at the championship.
   And NASCAR officials, clearly wanting to make sure they've got a handle on horsepower for the upcoming playoffs, will be doing a major engine dyno test: motors to be checked this week at NASCAR's R&D shop are from the cars of Kyle Busch, Johnson, Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan.

   Keselowski is charging toward the playoffs, with a late shot at the win.  "We were decent today, not enough to run with Jimmie and Jeff Gordon and Kyle. But we had good strategy and good pit stops," Keselowski said.
   Three top-threes in a row? "There's been some growth in the company at Penske Racing, and we've made a step forward….but we need to make another step forward, and that's a lofty goal," Keselowski said. "But we need to make another step forward, to be a championship team.
    "I won't go into the specifics; I'd have to kick my dog…and I like my dog."

    Jimmie Johnson (R) and Kyle Busch. The two to beat in the playoffs? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Of course a bigger part of the Keselowski charge is Keselowski himself, his rapidly growing maturity. Yes, Keselowski did win the Nationwide title last season. But he's only in his second full-time season on the Cup tour; does he have what it takes this fall to challenge Johnson for the title?
    And what does Johnson think about Keselowski as a looming challenger?
    "When we get to the chase, all the guys in the chase are very capable of winning the championship….and now you've got to look at the guys who have won championships first," Johnson says.
   "But the chase does something to everyone….the pressure it puts on the drivers – watching your life's work come to a head over a 10-race period of time…
   "And as the races click off and you get down to two or three to go, it does weird things to people. In the car, outside the car, on the pit box….things happen. We've seen that.
   "The chase starts in Chicago…and as the time goes by, the 'voices' start…the thoughts start in your head. And you will be challenged in every area.
   "What I've been able to fall back on is my past history. And what Brad will be able to fall back on is his history too, and his guys at Penske Racing.
   "So I am very interested to see how this chase is going to go. It's the hardest one to predict. I don't know who to make the favorite.
   "We'll just have to see how everyone responds when it really kicks up.
    "In the last 10 races you're going to be tested in every area.
   "You'll have to win a chase race to be the champion. But it's really about withstanding the pressure in every part of your game.
   "You will be challenged in every area….as a driver, and as a team.
   "And we all have weaknesses…and we all have strengths.
   "So the bottom line is really being strong, or adequate, in your weakest areas.
   "To be a champion, in today's world, you've got to be rock-solid.
    "And we'll all learn in time who that guy is this year.
   "We've been it the last five, but will we be it this year? We'll have to go out and earn that…or whoever will be the champion."

   Already playing head games with Keselowski, perhaps, as the two sat side-by-side post-race? Maybe so. But certain true.
   And Keselowski's take? How does Brad Keselowski plan to beat Jimmie Johnson for this year's championship?
   "Hearing voices, man? I was wondering where he sleeps at night," Keselowski cracked.
  "I don't think I'll be hearing any voices."
   "Just wait," Johnson quickly replied with a smile.
   "The biggest thing I can say about Jimmie is that his last championship was his most impressive," Keselowski picked back up.
   "Speed is the foundation of our sport. And up till last year I think people would say Jimmie has had the fastest car. But not last year, and he was still able to get it done.
   "If you've got the fastest car, you have the best odds to win the championship. That's the baseline – you've got to have speed.
   "From there, you've got to execute, can't make dumb moves…but you've got to make things happen without compromising your situation.
   "It all starts within your own team, and that's why I'm so encouraged about the progress we've made the last few weeks and this season. We'll have to see if we can start the chase with cars with good speed.
   "To beat Jimmie we'll have to have a fast race car, and out-execute him.
   "But he's proven that just having a fast race car isn't going to beat him."
   And how about that broken ankle? "I probably won't get to 100 percent until Daytona next February, but this is the best I've felt in a while," Keselowski said.

Greg Biffle: led a ton of laps, then his car faded, and he finished a disappointing 20th. Making the playoffs now may be tough (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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