The haymaker Jimmie Johnson delivered Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway turned out to be an eight-point swing.
Taking advantage of a late caution and four fresh tires to Brad Keselowski’s two, Johnson pulled away from Keselowski in a green-white-checkered-flag finish to win the AAA Texas 500 and tighten his grip on a possible sixth Sprint Cup Series championship.
Johnson finished .808 seconds ahead of Keselowski, the race runner-up, and increased his lead in the standings to from two points to seven. The victory was Johnson’s fifth of the season, his second at Texas and the 60th of his career. For the second straight week, Johnson won a Chase for the Sprint Cup race from the pole.
Kyle Busch ran third, followed by Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer. Keselowski held the lead on two previous restarts — one a breathtaking side-by-side battle with the five-time champion — but Johnson pulled ahead in the one that counted.
As hard as the top two Chase drivers raced each other on Sunday, Johnson felt it took the level of competition between them to new heights.
“The way we raced this afternoon, this evening — that’s what’s different,” Johnson said. “That’s the first time that we’ve really engaged at that level and raced each other that hard.
“To his credit, he did a nice job of getting right to the edge, and we brought home race cars. We weren’t wadded up looking like a bunch of fools over there, handing the 5 [Kasey Kahne] and the 15 [Bowyer] a big gift.”
Had Keselowski held on to the lead for the final two laps, he would have been the Chase leader by one point.
Johnson, however, saved his best restart for the two-lap finish that sent the race one lap beyond its scheduled distance of 334 laps.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to execute every restart, and Jimmie did a great job on the last one,” Keselowski said. “I had to choose between wrecking him and winning the race, and it didn’t seem right to wreck him.
“Ran him hard, and we’re going to keep him honest. I know if we keep running like this that we won’t be beat.”
After NASCAR called the sixth caution of the race on lap 274, for debris on the backstretch, Keselowski entered the pits as the leader but dropped eight spots on the exchange of stops.
First, Keselowski slid to the front of his pit stall on the stop. Compounding the problem, the No. 10 Chevrolet of Danica Patrick, whose pit stall was immediately in front of Keselowski’s, stopped at the top of her box, blocking Keselowski’s exit.
By the time the No. 2 crew pushed the Blue Deuce back to give Keselowski clearance, he had lost the eight spots, as other lead-lap cars rolled past.
Keselowski spent the subsequent 30-lap green-flag run making up ground. On Lap 307, he passed Matt Kenseth for the fourth position, with Johnson running second behind Kyle Busch.
Three laps later, Marcos Ambrose’s accident in Turn 2 brought out caution No. 7, and Keselowski regained the lead with a two-tire stop. Busch was second off pit road, ahead of Johnson, who restarted third on Lap 316.
Keselowski surged to the lead, clearing Busch on the backstretch, and held the top spot until the caution on Lap 321 for an incident involving Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle in Turn 2 slowed the field. Kahne got the worst of the contact, lost a lap and saw his title hopes all but evaporate.
Keselowski and Johnson raced side-by-side and a hairbreadth from losing control after the restart on lap 327, with Keselowski pulling out to an eight-car-length lead, but Mark Martin’s wreck on the frontstretch two laps later set up the two-lap dash to the finish.
Busch, who had a ringside seat from his third-place finishing position, was impressed by the intensity of the racing in front of him.
“It was exciting,” he said. “Those guys up there, man, they were battling, and they battled hard, giving it everything they’ve got. That’s what they’ve got to do. [If] you’re going to win a championship in the Sprint Cup Series, that’s what you’re going to have to make of it.”
1. Jimmie Johnson
2. Brad Keselowski
3. Kyle Busch
4. Matt Kenseth
5. Tony Stewart
6. Clint Bowyer
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
8. Kurt Busch
9. Kevin Harvick
10. Greg Biffle
11. Joey Logano
12. Ryan Newman
13. Martin Truex Jr.
14. Jeff Gordon
15. Aric Almirola
16. Carl Edwards
17. Sam Hornish Jr.
18. Jamie McMurray
19. Jeff Burton
20. Denny Hamlin
Sprint Cup standings
1. Jimmie Johnson
2. Brad Keselowski, -7
3. Clint Bowyer, -36
4. Kasey Kahne, -58
T5. Matt Kenseth, -72
T5. Jeff Gordon, -72
7. Denny Hamlin, -73
T8. Tony Stewart, -80
T8. Martin Truex Jr., -80
10. Greg Biffle, -83
11. Kevin Harvick, -101
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr., -151
13. Kyle Busch, 1048
14. Ryan Newman, 969
15. Carl Edwards, 965
NASCAR Wire Service, photo courtesy of NASCARmedia.com
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