JOLIET, Ill. -- Perhaps it is not wise to see the finish of Saturday night's LifeLock 400 as some sort of demarcation between the fortunes of Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.
It, however, surely is tempting.
When Johnson passed Busch for the lead with 16 laps to go, Busch came over his team's radio and declared, “Race over.”
That's not how it turned out. Not this year, when everything that happens somehow adds up to 18 – the number on Busch's Toyota.
Johnson was pulling away and sailing toward his second win of the season until a late caution for David Gilliland's blown engine set up a two-lap race to the checkered flag.
That opened the door for Busch, 23, and he plowed right through it for his seventh win of the season.
Johnson is the two-time defending Cup Series champion, and he's going to be around in the final 10 races when the Chase determines the 2008 title winner.
He won 10 races on his way to last year's crown, and when you win that many races in a season, it sometimes seems like every break goes your way. In case you hadn't noticed, that's what's happening for Busch this year.
Even Busch has noticed.
“I don't know how to put it, it's so different,” he said of his winning roll; he's won three of the past four races. “After winning one or two races a year, this is something that's crazy.
“Last year, you would see Jimmie coming with 100 laps to go or 50 laps to go and I would tell my team, ‘Race over.' And I was pretty much always right. … I was over there (at Hendrick Motorsports, as Johnson's teammate) last year and it was like, ‘How can I get some of those wins?' Now I know how he felt. You have to stay humble and you have to stay hungry. Somehow it's paying off and working out.”
Part of that somehow is the fact that Busch's new team at Joe Gibbs Racing was hungry for success. Bobby Labonte won a championship with that team, but there had been some lean days after that.
Crew chief Steve Addington said he knew the team had good people and good race cars, but he also knew there was a part of the puzzle that wasn't fitting. Busch has provided that piece, and the results have been startling.
“I never dreamed it could be like this,” Addington said. “Winning seven races already is crazy.”
It also might have been crazy how, coming into this season, Johnson was being somewhat overlooked despite the fact he'd won the past two titles.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved in as his teammate in the Hendrick stable, and it had almost become a foregone conclusion that Johnson would win his handful of races and have the team through which the path to the championship ran.
As the series heads into its final off weekend of the season, however, it appears there's a new route. To win the title this year, Johnson and everyone else is going to have to deal with Busch and his team.
Busch said he won Saturday night's race by “pulling a Jimmie Johnson on himself” with the pass off the final restart.
“Anywhere from here on out Jimmie could do the same thing right back to me,” Busch said. “I know there will be times when it's reversed. But with him being the defending champion, I have the utmost respect for them.
“To beat guys like that is really special.”
The problem for Johnson and everybody else, however, is it's becoming routine.