Two in a row now for Jimmie Johnson, but still he can't shake Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski got physical with each in the final miles, pushing and shoving and trying to intimidate, and a determined Johnson took the high lane to the lead off turn two in the green-white-checkered finish and beat Keselowski to win the Texas 500.
"It was an awesome race," Johnson said after his second straight playoff victory, this one in Round Eight of the 10-race championship chase.
"The gloves are off; it's bare knuckles racing."
So Johnson takes a slim seven-point lead over Keselowski to Phoenix for Round Nine.
Johnson dominated the first half of the three-hour race, leading the most laps, comfortably. But when the sun went down and the track cooled, Johnson appeared to lose his edge.
In fact, Keselowski appeared in command with 30 miles to go, after a two-tire pit stop gamble -- which he himself called -- put him in the lead.
That Keselowski could stay ahead of Johnson, who had four fresh tires, and Kyle Busch was somewhat surprising.
"I thought two tires was the way to go," Keselowski said. "Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. But it was worth a shot."
Restarts are such an art form in this sport. Johnson and Busch both criticized Keselowski for 'jumping' the restart, but NASCAR made no calls.
"I think the restarts made the difference," Keselowski said. "Jimmie probably would have gotten me, with an extended run."
Brad Keselowski has a tight time on pit road with Danica Patrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"I thought I had it until that last yellow, but you can't avoid that when somebody crashes," Keselowski said, referring to a Mark Martin-Jeff Gordon incident.
"Restarts are like 'rock, paper, scissors,' eventually you're going to lose one.
"Every restart I didn't have very good grip, spun the tires."
Busch, who was hoping to take advantage of the bruising duel between Johnson and Keselowski, was angry about the next to last restart, when he felt he could have taken the lead.
"I guess there are no restart rules," Busch griped. "Brad went early the last two times. But that's Cup racing.
"From my experience with Brad, that doesn't surprise me."
At that moment, ironically, Keselowski and Busch were standing next to each other.
Jimmie Johnson (outside) and Brad Keselowski didn't play nice with each other in the final miles of the Texas 500. But then the NASCAR championship is on the line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Johnson, on that next to last restart, was also upset with Keselowski, and under the next yellow, he pulled up alongside apparently to deliver that message.
"That one restart was pretty sketchy...." Johnson said.
"I knew we had the speed, if I could get by him."
Of the furious battling at the end, Keselowski vowed to his crew on the radio "I'm not going to lose the championship this way," apparently referring to the pinching and squeezing he endured but also dished out.
Things were dicey on several occasions in the final minutes. Keselowski, on the inside, tried to push Johnson high in the first turn, and when Johnson pushed back, they were on the verge of crashing.
Keselowski said afterwards that he yielded rather than take both out: "That's not the way you want to win a race, not the way you want to win a championship.
"I raced hard. And we both came back around. There's something to be said for that."
Busch, in contention for the win, though not in the chase, had a great view of the closing laps.
"It looked like Brad was trying to push Jimmie up into the dirty, on that next to last restart," Busch said. "But they're no dummies.
"We were really fast if we could get out front.
"I wish we were in the deal....but that's what next year is for."
Johnson, whose finishing average in the chase is a sizzling 4.9, to Keselowski's 5.3, says "the way things have been going, you have to win the race to get points."
But for a few moments late in the night it looked like these two were about to go over the edge and let rivals back in the title hunt.
"You're going to have that to a certain degree," Johnson said. "But I was a little shocked by the commitment into turn one.
"I've joked before about driving in far enough to where I see Elvis, and we went past Elvis. I don't know who was coming next, but that car was coming up the track and took us both to the fourth and fifth lanes.
"Fortunately we both stayed one‑two and didn't crash and didn't lose a spot on the track.
"But I knew he was serious about the race lead prior to that, and that took it to a new level.
"That last restart I was able to rally around on the outside and finish so fast.
"I came so close to finishing the pass the restart prior, but I didn't get it done. So I made sure I got everything right on that last one and got by him."
During the last yellow Johnson expressed his displeasure with Keselowski: "I just pointed at him...just wanted him to use his head. There is no sense in taking us both out.
"If he was taking me out, you can count on the fact I would have been on the gas and trying to take him with me.
"It just doesn't need to come down to that.
"The cool thing is we walked right up to that line, got right to the edge, and then it stopped.
"Then Brad after the race came to victory lane and shook my hand... a very classy move."
Mark Martin got the worst of it in the night's final crash (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski had taken command of the race late, but pit stop issues cost him. His pit was right behind Danica Patrick's, and he had issues getting out of his pit after several stops, once having to back up to get around her.
Patrick drives for Tony Stewart, who is one of Rick Hendrick's 'satellite' teams, getting engines and engineering from Hendrick.
Whether or not there was any gamesmanship involved wasn't clear. But Patrick has only raced in a handful of Cup events and might not understand all the issues yet.
Keselowski's crew asked Patrick's crew to have her pit so to give a little more room. But that didn't happen.
And on one late stop Keselowski came in with the lead, for a routine caution period pit stop, only to find himself boxed in, and that cost him the lead and put him eight spots down for the restart.
Whose fault? "It was probably a little bit of both," Keselowski said. "I'll take some blame.
"But we could have probably gotten a little help from the cars we were pitting around. But with that car, it probably wouldn't have made much difference.
"When you catch the breaks like Jimmie caught today, and the yellows, and you can execute like that, they're unbeatable.
"But I feel that's going to turn around in our direction, and we'll turn these seconds and fifths into wins. And I feel that's bound to happen over the next two weeks.
"Don't think we have to run the table on Jimmie, but I do feel we have to win one in the next two weeks.
"It's a heads-up match going into Phoenix, and a heads-up match going into Homestead."
Jimmie Johnson fires another one, in one of his toughest title fights (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The race was quite uneventful until the final 25 laps, beginning with Marcos Ambrose blowing a tire on lap 311 of what wound up as a 335-lapper. That helped Keselowski regain command, from Busch. Moments later another caution came out, for debris, setting a contentious restart, with Keselowski playing hard with Johnson.
"With only five or six to go, when we had the lead, I felt pretty good about it," Keselowski said.
But then on lap 331 Martin got tangled up with Carl Edwards, bringing out the final caution and last restart, also contentious. This time Johnson regained control and slipped away to win.
Pit road: "We 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 (Patrick) blocked me," Keselowski said. "That was probably my fault.
"From there we just had a dogfight to get some track position back. Did the last pit stop and got out up front. Just fought as hard as I could to keep the lead, just came up a little bit short.
"I raced hard... and I'm sure someone would say dirty. Hell, anytime you run close to certain guys you're racing them dirty according to some people. But I raced hard, and we both came back around, so there's something to be said for that.
"I felt we were just going to wreck. And I wasn't looking to be the guy that wrecked him. I didn't really enjoy the last time that happened with Kyle, and I don't think he did either. He might not believe that. But that's just not the way you want to run a race.
"That (situation) was pretty much the only choice I had. I felt lucky to survive that one."
And now? "The way the points are, we still control our own destiny -- if we win the race (at Phoenix), we get the points lead. That's about all you can ask for."
At the finish line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)