BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Jimmie Johnson appeared to be cruising.
With nine laps left in the Pure Michigan 400, Johnson took over the race lead from Brad Keselowski with a nifty inside pass between the third and fourth turns, and began to extend his lead over Keselowski as the race sped closer to the finish.
If Johnson was thinking about winning his fourth Sprint Cup Series race this season as he wound around the two-mile oval Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, he got ahead of himself. The engine on Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet blew with less than six laps left in the race, bringing out the eighth and final caution to set up a green-white-checkered finish.
In the same fashion as his engine, Johnson's one-point lead in the Sprint Cup drivers standings went up in smoke. As Johnson left the track for his hauler, his helmet still on his head, Greg Biffle grabbed the opportunity not only to win the race championship but to take over the driver points lead. Biffle didn't waste any time dashing away from Keselowski on the final lap to earn his second win of the season.
After finishing sixth Aug. 12 at the Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen at Watkins Glen International, Biffle seemingly flew under the radar despite entering the Pure Michigan 400 second in the drivers points standings.
Now, Biffle is front and center. With a few words, he most likely raised his profile.
"I was disappointed with myself and I left that race track without the points lead, and it was totally my fault," Biffle said.
"Nobody said a word about it. Nobody mentioned it or knew about it except me because I was driving the car and I knew I gave up those two spots and was one point behind [Johnson] coming here. I pay attention to what we need to do as a team and not make mistakes and do what it's going to take to win this championship.
"If it is not a story and they don't cover it, then that's fine. But they will be forced to after Homestead."
Entering Saturday's IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Biffle leads the drivers points standings, 20 points ahead of Matt Kenseth and 22 points ahead of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Johnson dropped to fourth in the standings, ahead of Keslowski.
Biffle wasn't the only driver thinking long-term. As Biffle celebrated in Victory Lane, drivers were no longer thinking about that final dash to the finish line. Some were already talking in terms of "The Chase" -- the chase for the Championship -- which ends with the final race of the season, which Biffle referenced, the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla.
Akin to the playoffs, the top 10 drivers and the two drivers between 11th and 20th place with the most wins advance to contend for the Sprint Cup championship in the final ten races of the season.
Kasey Kahne, who finished third in the Pure Michigan 400, is 11th in the points standings. With two wins this season, he's considered a Chase contender.
"We put a solid day together," Kahne said. "It would still be nice to get one more win and make that Chase spot. We still have good tracks to go to, but we just need to keep running up front."
The Chase begins Sept. 16 with the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. While gauntlets aren't officially being thrown, the gamesmanship may have begun following the Pure Michigan 400, a race that kicked a period Jeff Gordon dubbed "the chase for the Chase."
Keselowski believed Johnson deserved the win. With spots in and positioning for the Chase on the line, Keselowski issued a post-race edict of sorts.
"The 48 has the most speed and the best history as far as the Chase is concerned," said Keselowski, referencing Johnson and his Chevrolet. "It's my job to not roll over and give it to him. We're doing everything we can do, and we nailed it as far as that last three-lap sequence. And I'm proud as hell of my guys for doing that. Although they might have the most speed, we're not giving up. We're going to keep him honest through this Chase. That's our goal. It's good to know that they're frustrated, because they should be. We nailed it.
"The 48 might be the favorite for the championship, but we're not going to roll over and let him have it."
Biffle, however, didn't defer to Johnson or to any other driver in Sunday's race.
"I know a lot of people don't expect us to win the championship and don't expect us to compete for the title," Biffle said. "But I don't care what they say or who they want to talk about or what they want to talk about."
Biffle's win gave them something to talk about. Before Biffle left MIS, he made his own declaration.
"We will be a factor when it comes down to Homestead, I promise you that."
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.