Jimmie Johnson won't go into this year's Chase as the points leader, and probably not as the favorite – heard that one before? – either. Both distinctions will likely go to Kyle Busch, who picked up his series-leading fourth win of the season Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.
The win gives Busch sole possession of the points lead and likely the No. 1 seed heading into the Chase.
So what does Johnson, who finished second Sunday, think about that?
Not a whole lot.
Just as he did last year when he went into the season finale trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points, Johnson used the dais on Sunday to explain how the pressure of racing for a championship plays with your head and the impossibility of knowing how one will respond to said pressure until one has been through it.
"The Chase does something to everyone – the pressure that's put on the drivers, watching your life's work come to work over a 10 race period of time," Johnson explained. "As the races click off, it comes down to two or three races left, it does weird things to people, outside the car, on the pit box, things happen. We've seen that.
"I'm very interested to see how this Chase is going to go," he continued. "I think it's the hardest one to predict. It's going to be a close one. I don't know who to make the favorite. We'll just have to see how everybody responds to pressure when it really kicks up."
Some will say this is Johnson playing mind games. He says it's just the truth.
"As much as I'm trying to needle Denny [Hamlin], it's the truth," Johnson told Yahoo! Sports last November. "You spend time worrying about a wreck, a blown tire, running out of gas. You're always thinking, 'Defend, defend, defend.' Then you're caught up in negative thoughts."
Before last year's finale, Hamlin said the pressure hadn't gotten to him. After it – after he'd botched qualifying, started in the back, run into Greg Biffle and spun – he admitted that when he put on his firesuit that afternoon, "that's when it hit me."
I'm not going to predict how Busch will react to the pressure of running for a championship, but it is worth looking at how he's responded recently in difficult situations.
When Kevin Harvick confronted him on pit road at Darlington, Busch – unaware that Harvick's car was not in gear – drove away from the situation. He finished fourth a week later. When Richard Childress punched him in the face, Busch refused to get into a verbal war. The next day, he ran near the front for most of the STP 400. When Harvick tried to run him off the track at Pocono, Busch backed off and let Harvick go. Busch wound up finishing third.
All this is anecdotal, but it's what we have to go on. When the pressure is on him – this season, anyway – Busch has performed.
If there's been a chink in his armor, it's been on the track – surprisingly – on restarts.
Normally money on restarts, Busch has faltered each of the last two weeks. He stumbled to get going at Pocono and muffed the first turn at Watkins Glen – both while leading.
(Though he didn't win at Pocono and Watkins Glen, screwing up meant he finished second and third, respectively.)
He held the lead late again on Sunday when his brother Kurt pounded the wall, bringing out a caution to set up a second-straight Green-White-Checkered finish. This time, however, Busch would not stumble, bolting ahead of Johnson on the restart and never looking back.
"I pretty much knew I wanted the top [lane]," Busch said. "I figured I'd just give myself the best opportunity to win, and that was just to run the topside, keep my momentum rolling up through Turns 1 and 2.
"When we got down in there, we were side by side a little bit," he continued. "Jimmie had to pinch his car a little bit too much being the inside guy. Whether you get tight or loose, it's going to be hard to hold yourself off that outside guy. I figured I'd just give myself all the room that I needed to my outside in case I needed to run [as] high I could. There wasn't much debate from my side."
As far as being the driver to beat heading into the Chase, Busch shrugged off the notion, saying, "There's way too much that can happen, way too many laps to run, way too many miles to run.
"Certainly we've built ourself into championship contenders this year and that's where our strong suit has been up to this point," he said. "It's just being able to be consistent or at least try to be consistent, after our bad days, try to come back and get a top 10."
He's saying and doing all the right things, which from an entertainment standpoint kind of stinks. No doubt the old Kyle Busch was a lot more fun. But as we witnessed in 2008, when he went into the Chase as the leader, the old Kyle Busch wasn't so good in the face of adversity. We'll find out soon enough if there really is a new Kyle Busch.
- Kyle Busch