Busch caps monster weekend at Dover
The old Johnson wouldn't have been caught speeding on pit road with 37 laps left in Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway, turning a potentially classic finish between two stars into a runaway for Busch.
The old Johnson wouldn't have finished a disappointing 16th with a car so dominant that he led a race-high 225 of 400 laps.
Maybe the four-time defending Cup champion was right on Friday. Maybe the hard hit from AJ Allmendinger last week at Darlington Raceway knocked the golden horseshoe -- which Kevin Harvick so bluntly said Johnson had earlier this year -- completely out of the place where the sun doesn't shine .
Maybe it landed at Joe Gibbs Racing, which has won five of the past seven races to at least temporarily claim superiority over Hendrick Motorsports.
"Don't anybody pull it out," team owner Joe Gibbs said with a laugh.
Funny thing about luck. It always seems to follow the good teams.
Johnson didn't win earlier this year at California and Las Vegas because he was lucky, as many claimed. He won because he was in position to win when things went his way.
Busch did the same thing at Dover. He fought a somewhat ill-handling car through the first half of the race, stayed patient, and when Johnson left a crack in the door, he drove through it.
If you want to talk about luck, Busch was unlucky he didn't sweep all three events at the Monster Mile. If not for vapor lock on a late restart of Friday's Truck series race while in the lead, NASCAR's 25-year-old bad boy would have won the Truck, Nationwide and Cup races.
"I [said Saturday] I'd be mad when I won this race," said Busch, who led 494 of 809 laps over the weekend. "I knew I had that shot to sweep the whole weekend. It is what it is. It's not going to hurt my feelings too much to go to bed knowing I lost Friday."
Johnson won't lose a lot of sleep, either. He knows he lost a shot to win because he was .09 seconds over the speeding tolerance on pit road. He knows his team is going through a rough spell with three finishes outside the top 10 in the last four races.
He also knows he had a car capable of winning and that his recent string of misfortune won't impact his chances of winning a fifth straight tile when the 10-race Chase rolls around.
"There at the end was going to be a dogfight," Johnson said when asked if he could have won had it not been for the penalty. "It's unfortunate we didn't have a chance to race him at the end."
In other words, the old Johnson hasn't gone anywhere.
There really isn't a new Kyle, either, although Busch likes it when people say there is. The passion that makes him a threat to end Johnson's dominance hasn't gone anywhere.
Chances are had the situation been reversed and Busch was caught speeding, he would have left the track in the same huff we've seen countless times before.
Where he is new and improved is with patience inside the car. At one point while running second he complained that his Toyota was "plowing really, really bad." But instead of overdriving it or losing is cool, he waited for crew chief Dave Rogers to make the right adjustment that allowed him to be around when Johnson faltered.
There at the end was going to be a dogfight. It's unfortunate we didn't have a chance to race him at the end.” -- Jimmie Johnson
"Another victory for Kyle on that one," Busch said with a laugh when asked if this was part of his new persona. "I'd like to say I was smart then, too, but I know I'm a little smarter now.
"I knew what I had and I didn't have. I had a fast race car. If it was a loose race car where I was drifting backwards, yeah, I probably would have overdrove it. I probably would have slapped the fence a few times or whatever."
He didn't. He maintained his position and actually pulled away from Johnson for a while on the next-to-last long run. Even after being passed for the lead with 47 to go, he kept far enough ahead of third place to be in position to take the lead when Johnson slipped.
"That's just the way that we need to keep plugging at it and keep getting these solid finishes in order to keep going and stay up there in the points for when the Chase rolls around," said Busch, who improved to second in points with his second win in the last three events and his sixth straight top-10.
That's what it'll take for Busch to knock Johnson off the throne, because when the Chase rolls around we all know the 48 doesn't make many mistakes. As Mark Martin said after Johnson swept Dover in 2009, "I'm pretty sure that dude is Superman."
Busch would like to think he forced Superman into making a mistake on this sun-splashed afternoon. He said over his radio, "We snookered him on that one. He saw us coming out in front of him and he sped."
He later said, "I don't know if that happened or not, but I'm going to say it did."
He didn't. Johnson was caught speeding while accelerating out of his pit box, before he realized Busch was going to get out ahead of him. He actually slowed when he realized Busch was going to win the race off pit road, knowing he had the faster car most of the day.
"I got a much better launch out of my pit box than I did on other stops and then was speeding in that given area," Johnson said.
Trust me, Johnson wasn't coaxed. He and his crew calculate to the umpteenth second how fast they can go in the segments along pit road. They arguably pick up more time knowing how to beat the rule better than any other team.
Busch knows that, too.
"I wouldn't say that we psyched Jimmie out," he later backpedaled. "I mean, he's won four championships so he's pretty much been through all the head games in this world."
Busch isn't bad at the head games, either. He revels in the old-versus-new Busch comments, although the change really can't be tested for real until he goes through a string of what Johnson did on Sunday.
"Point taken," Busch said. "Another victory for Kyle."
He laughed and then continued, "Whenever you say 'new Kyle,' man, I'm chalking them up. That's right. That's very true. Of course, after Friday I wasn't too pleasurable to be around."
What perhaps has changed is we're in store for some fun if Johnson, Busch and Denny Hamlin can keep up this pace. Busch's teammate, who had won three of the last six races, finished a respectable fourth.
Maybe, just maybe, there are enough horseshoes to go around and we'll be talking about a new and improved Chase.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.