By Jeff Wolfe
Jimmie Johnson got one more chance and as a result moved one step closer to another title with a NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at Texas Motor Speedway Sunday. And the five-time champion did it at the most important time of the season as the driver known as five-time increased his chances of becoming six-time with just two races left in the season by earning his second straight win.
There were two restarts in the final ten laps of the race and they both involved Johnson and his chief contender, Brad Keselowski starting side-by-side, each time with Keselowski in the lead and choosing the inside lane.
On the next-to-last restart with nine laps left, Keselowski got the jump, maybe a little too quickly according to his competitors, and after a tense two laps, including touching doors with Johnson twice, pulled away. If the race had remained green, it would have been difficult for Johnson to make up about a three car-length gap Keselowski had gained.
But it didn’t remain green as Mark Martin spun out with five laps remaining. Martin’s spin took him down into the infield grass and there was some track cleanup involved and his car needed towing back to the garage.
By the time the cleanup was done, what turned out to be the final restart was NASCAR’s version of overtime, a green-white-checkered finish for the 146,000 fans. Again with Keselowski on the inside and Johnson on the outside, Johnson had a better restart, or maybe Keselowski not quite as good of one, as they took the green flag virtually even at the start-finish line.
Johnson maintained his momentum and was never challenged on the final two laps by Keselowski. Johnson also maintained his momentum in the Chase for the Championship by winning back-to-back races for the 12th time in his Sprint Cup career. Johnson increased his points lead over Keselowski by five, and now has a seven-point lead.
“It was action packed and I’m certainly glad it is over,” said Johnson, who led a race-high 168 of the 335 laps and had his second straight maximum points race of 48. “The second-to-last restart was pretty sketchy a couple of times in how hard we could race him. We knew we had the speed if I could just get by him.”
Keselowski, who is fighting for his first Sprint Cup title, wasn’t going to simply defer to the driver of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.
“I thought I had it, but we kept getting all those yellows,” said Keselowski who led 75 laps. “We just kept giving them more shots. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to execute all of those restarts and Jimmie did a great job on the last one.”
Keselowski also knew he had to be aggressive, but not over aggressive.
“I had to choose between wrecking him and winning the race and it didn’t seem right to wreck him,” Keselowski said. “I ran him hard, and we’re going to keep him honest. I know if we keep running like this, we won’t be beat.”
While Johnson has the experience and points edge, he certainly isn’t discounting what the Keselowski and his team are doing and have done all season.
“I expect a lot of hard racing and that’s what we’ve seen all year long and all Chase long,” said Johnson, who gave Chevrolet its 700th Sprint Cup victory.
Keselowski continued to break new ground on tracks that have not traditionally been strong for him. He had not finished on the lead lap at Texas in his last six races there. But with 59 laps to go he was leading Johnson by two seconds when he came into the pits. He slid into his stall a bit awkwardly and at an angle. And when he needed to exit, he had to back up a bit to clear the pitting car of Danica Patrick. The long stop put Keselowski back to ninth.
“The yellow came out, and I had the issue on pit road where I just got on the brakes and couldn’t get it to slow down quite as well as I needed it to and put myself in a bad position where the 10 blocked me, and that was probably my fault,” Keselowski said. “But from there, we just had a dog fight to get some track position back.”
He eventually worked his way up to fourth when the seventh of nine cautions for 49 laps came out with the scheduled 19 laps to go. Keselowski took two tires to come out of the pits with the lead.
“We did the last pit stop and got out up front,” Keselowski said. “I just fought as hard as I could to keep the lead, just came up a little bit short there.”
Johnson certainly knows about the fight to win championships and he’s hoping that will help him in the final two races, at Phoenix next Sunday and then at Miami-Homestead Nov. 18.
“I really think due to age and experience in the sport, and even last year trying to keep the streak alive, I told myself there is no pressure,” Johnson said. “But it’s a clean sheet of paper for the 48 team. It’s about looking forward and starting a new streak or winning another championship.”
If Johnson and his team are feeling the pressure, they are responding to it in championship style. In the eight Chase races, Johnson has an average finish of 4.9, has led 686 laps with six finishes in the top six and one other finish in the top 10. Johnson’s only hiccup in the Chase so far was a 17th-place finish at Talladega. Johnson also became the first driver to win back-to-back races from the pole since teammate Jeff Gordon accomplished the feat in April of 2007 at Phoenix and Talladega.
The rest of the top 10 Sunday after Johnson and Keselowski were Kyle Busch in third, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle.
Kyle Busch, who led 80 laps, had a prime view of those final laps and designs on trying to win his second race of the year. But in a season filled with bad luck and after missing the Chase, he’s also looking to build momentum for next year.
“We were really fast if we could get out front,” Busch said. “We had a fast race car tonight. There at the end, we wanted to get through there and be out front and be gone, but I just couldn’t get there. I wish we were in the deal (Chase), but that’s what next year is for.”
Sunday’s race at Phoenix will be a 3 p.m. start on ESPN.
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