Brant James
Sunday August 21st, 2011

Five things we learned from Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway:

1. Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. Back. And forth. Whether their decisive tussle for victory in the final laps at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday becomes a metaphor for the Sprint Cup championship in the final 13 races of the season remains unclear. But there is a reasonable assumption that Johnson, the five-time defending series champion, and points-leader Busch, the ultra-talented but historically fatally flawed challenger, will engage in this sort of battle again. Be it for a parcel of asphalt or a slot in the final point standings, they undoubtedly will claim the same space as property once the 10-race Chase for the Championship begins. Busch's teammate, Denny Hamlin, who finished second to Johnson last season, was supposed to be in this equation also. He still could. But he seemed as far removed from the championship picture as he did the race for lead on Sunday.

GALLERY: 2011 NASCAR Winners

"We're 13 weeks from me being able to answer (that)," Busch said of whether he could unseat Johnson after gaining his series-best fourth win. "Certainly, I'd like to give ourselves a lot of credit that we can do that, that we have the ability to do that.

"I feel like it's anybody's game right now still. Although (Carl Edwards) had problems today, they can still come back. They're still in the Chase (and are) going to be tough. (Johnson) is going to be tough. (Kevin Harvick) is going to be good. Hopefully, we can get our teammate in there and he'll be good, too."

Hopefully in regards to Hamlin, perhaps as revealing as anything else Busch said on Sunday.

2. Denny Hamlin is in jeopardy. So concerned was Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford about the current state of their season -- 12th before Sunday -- they opted to make a switch from Joe Gibbs Racing-built engines to Toyota Racing Development product before the end of the season, instead of in 2012 with the rest of the team. Reliability woes have tormented Hamlin this season and he will utilize TRD engines for the rest of the season after using a JGR model next week at Bristol. The new power plant performed as expected on Sunday, but Hamlin -- who won at Michigan this spring for his second all-time victory -- was dogged by other issues and finished 35th after a hard double impact with the wall with less than 80 laps left, ruining the No. 11 Toyota.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Standings

Hamlin, who has qualified for the Chase in each of his five full-time seasons, fell to 14th in the driver standings, but his perch seems far more tentative than that. Though Hamlin's one victory this season put him in possession of the second wild card spot, he is very much in peril. It's also of great interest to Mark Martin (eight points behind Hamlin, no wins), Kasey Kahne (12, no wins), and Paul Menard (18, one win), who can seemingly snatch a postseason berth. "It just seems like we've been very fortunate that the guys around us either haven't won a race or on days we struggle they have a bad race," Hamlin said. "Any other circumstances and we'd be in big trouble right now, but I'm still glad to be in our spot than anyone else's at this point. We just need to figure out how to finish races and that carries on my shoulders as much as it carries on anyone's."

3. Toyota dominance continues. It's unclear whether Kyle Busch's post-race declaration that winning in a Toyota was especially rewarding because it took place near Detroit, the epicenter of the American auto industry, was a benign quip or a pointed dig on the behalf of his Japanese-based manufacturer (which builds more than half of its branded vehicles sold in the United States in this country). Either way, it's his prerogative. In winning four of the last five races in Michigan -- two by Hamlin, another by Brian Vickers -- Toyota has made a statement. Now it's up to the domestics to do something about it.

4. Jimmie Johnson is charging into the postseason. The five-time defending series champion had just completed a green flag pit stop with 30 laps left when a caution flag was issued for a slow-moving race car near pit entrance. "Finally, finally, finally, something went right,'' said crew chief Chad Knaus over team radio, cognizant that the fluke of timing would circle the No. 48 Chevrolet to the lead as the field pitted under caution. Johnson held the lead for 17 laps before Busch passed him, and was denied a first win at Michigan. Still, JJ has four top-5 finishes in his last six races, ascending from fifth to second in points. "It's a step in the right direction," said Johnson. "I look at some intermediate tracks. We've been very competitive. I look at Kentucky, here falls into that category, then I think of Kansas from a negative standpoint because we were just terrible there. It's kind of inconsistent. We're still working hard to build that consistency into the car. But every good race, it just kind of builds a direction and helps us reinforce the areas we're working in. We certainly need to do better on the mile-and-a-halfs. That's been our bread and butter over the years. With the Chase being so heavily weighted in those races, we need to be competitive there."

5. Brad Keselowski's run is good for the other wild-card contenders, bad for Tony Stewart. A broken ankle and first-, second- and third-place finishes shall forever be known as a 'BK Slam." Or at least they should. After suffering a the injury during a testing crash at Road Atlanta three weeks ago, the driver of the No. 2 Dodge has recorded three straight podium finishes, perhaps most impressively a runner-up effort last week on the grueling road course at Watkins Glen. Medical inconvenience be damned, Keselowski has torn toward what would be a first Chase, advancing from 23rd to 12th in points. Keselowski's win at Pocono two weeks ago gave him two this season and thrust him into Chase eligibility at 18th in points -- the drivers with the most wins between points positions 11 and 20 qualify -- a spot he figured hard-pressed to defend while injured, but he has instead advanced. Now he's 52 points behind Stewart, who currently resides in the tenth spot. If Keselowski pierces the top 10, several other drivers would then vault into wild-card contention."For our team, probably the biggest thing I could say is there's certainly some confidence and snowballing going on," Keselowski said. "One good run breeds another good run. 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 it's been amazing."

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