BROOKLYN, Mich. — Kyle Busch held off Jimmie Johnson — for the time being, at least.
Busch outlasted Johnson to win Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, pulling away after a late caution for his fourth victory of the season.
The win gave Busch a 10-point lead over Johnson at the top of the points standings, but there are still three more races before the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts.
Johnson is the five-time defending champion on NASCAR's top circuit, and Busch is merely the latest driver who seems poised to challenge him.
"Certainly it's going to be a run down to the end," Busch said. "The points are tight. With any bad day it seems to hurt you so much, you really have to concentrate on battling back, getting yourself back up in the points."
Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick pushed Johnson to the limit last year, but fell short in the end. Now Busch has his sights on the championship, and although there's plenty of racing still to come, he aced Sunday's test in what became a head-to-head dash to the finish with the man everyone is trying to wrest the title from.
Busch passed Johnson with about a dozen laps remaining and was opening up a comfortable margin when his brother Kurt Busch scraped a wall, forcing a caution from laps 198-201. The yellow flag erased much of Kyle Busch's lead, but he was able to fight off a quick move from Johnson after the restart, then held on to win during the green-white-checkered finish.
"I said this about him a while ago: Once he figured out how to win races, he'd win a lot," Johnson said. "He certainly has done that. His big test is for a championship. Once he understands that and figures that out, I think he'll win a lot of those too."
It was Busch's first Cup win at Michigan.
Brad Keselowski finished third, his third consecutive top-three finish and fifth top-10 in his past six races. Mark Martin was fourth.
Keselowski has been impressive recently despite breaking his left ankle earlier this month during a test session. He's now 12th in the standings, and with two victories, he looks likely to make the Chase as a wild card.
The top 10 drivers and the two drivers ranked 11th to 20th with the most victories earn spots for the Chase.
"I would like to make the top 10 on our own merits, if for no other reason than to push away all the naysayers of the wild-card system," Keselowski said. "It's going to be good either way. I'm a big fan of the wild card. It's going to be something that's going to reward me. I think it's a great way of showing a commitment to our fans to rewarding those who can win races."
Hamlin, Kyle Busch's teammate with Joe Gibbs Racing, would be the other wild card if the regular season ended now, but he did little to help himself Sunday with a 35th-place showing.
Hamlin, who had to stop in at the garage about two-thirds of the way through the race, is 14th in the standings with one win — at Michigan back in June.
Pole-sitter Greg Biffle led for 86 of the first 100 laps Sunday, but it didn't last. Kyle Busch passed him around the midway point of the planned 200-lap, 400-mile race. Jeff Gordon took the lead not long after that, and Johnson appeared to be in great shape when he made a pit stop just before a caution that started on lap 169.
Johnson was able to stay out on the track while other cars made pit stops under the yellow flag, and he led on the restart.
But Kyle Busch was lurking back in third place in his No. 18 Toyota and eventually passed Johnson.
"Wish I could have hung on," Johnson said. "I got away from Kyle, but as I was pulling away, I was sliding the car pretty bad. ... Eventually, he got to me. With that last restart I had a shot once again, got a good restart next to him, but couldn't make it happen."
Busch has three straight top-three showings. He was second to Keselowski at Pocono and third at Watkins Glen.
Busch won his 23rd career Sprint Cup race, pulling even with Kurt Busch in that category. Now, 26-year-old Kyle would like to match another of his brother's accomplishments by winning a series title, as Kurt did in 2004.
"He's always still got that carrot over me," Kyle Busch said. "Certainly, being the younger brother, I've had a little bit shorter time being here,but still, it's great to see both of us be as competitive as we've been and as successful as we've been."