Jimmie Johnson battled Matt Kenseth in the closing laps of Sunday's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, taking the win and lead in the NASCAR Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship. After a thrilling duel in the final ten laps, Johnson edged...
Jimmie Johnson battled Matt Kenseth in the closing laps of Sunday's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, taking the win and lead in the NASCAR Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship. After a thrilling duel in the final ten laps, Johnson edged ahead of Kenseth at the checkered flag to take his third straight win.
A fiery wreck by Greg Biffle on lap 298 brought the caution out for the 12th and final time of the race. Race leader Kyle Busch, as well as Johnson and title rival Jeff Gordon, took four tires on the final pit stop. Ryan Newman and Kenseth, who both opted for two tires, were out in front on the restart with 29 laps left. Kenseth motored by Newman for the lead one lap after the green and opened up a margin over second place.
Moments later, Johnson began a charge up the leaderboard, getting by Martin Truex Jr. and Newman to take over second. The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet reeled in the Kenseth's No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford with ten laps left. The two battled side-by-side, with Kenseth manning the high line and Johnson down low. The lead exchanged hands a few times, with Johnson able to get around Kenseth for good with two to go. He then opened up a small margin to take the win, his ninth of the season.
"I knew it was going to be a battle to the end," said Johnson in victory lane. "When it comes to winning these races, everybody's going to fight hard. I expected a good fight. I didn't think his two tires would last that long or that he would be that good. I'm just glad I was able to get by. There wasn't much time left to get it done."
Sunday's race into the darkness started off well for Johnson, who ran inside the top 10 for much of the afternoon. But pit strategy in the closing laps gave Johnson the edge, benefiting from the extra grip provided by taking on four tires in the end.
"Here with 30 laps to go, four tires was going to be king," said winning crew chief Chad Knaus. "We were fortunate enough to be the first one with four tires on the racetrack and it worked out."
Johnson's win put him back atop the lead in the Chase for the Nextel Cup for the first time since Kansas. Coming into Texas with a nine-point deficit, he now holds a 30 point lead over teammate Gordon with two races to go.
"So we have momentum going our direction right now but it's only 30 points," said Johnson. "If you look at the last two weeks, I've been able to make up roughly 60 points and Jeff hasn't had bad races the last two events. He's had strong finishes.
"Motorsports will eat people up and spit them out, and I just want to capitalize on this opportunity that I have. Jeff is a great friend and great teammate, but he's also the most challenging guy out there for me to beat. And that's with all the respect in the world."
On the final restart, it looked like Kenseth had the race sewn up. However, he only took two tires on the final stop. The call that gave Johnson the win last week at Atlanta turned out to be the wrong move this time around. The two tire change caused Kenseth to lose grip later in the run, giving Johnson the upper edge in the long run.
"He ran me down from a long ways back," Kenseth explained. "I was steadily losing grip, which was normal. I drove it real hard to try and get as big of a lead as I could. I was a little too loose putting two tires on and kept on losing more and more grip as I was running. With four tires, he just had more grip."
Kenseth ended up settling for second, his third runner-up finish in the last four races at Texas. Last spring, Kenseth was also leading in the closing stages of the race, but lost the lead to Jeff Burton on the final lap.
"I was disappointed with that but overall if you sit back and look at the day, it was a great day for us," he said. "I don't think we necessarily had a second placed car most of the day-- During the day, we weren't really good at all. It was a little advantage in the end. I thought we had a top three or four car. [The No. 48 car] made the right call and had the best car in the end and got through there."
Truex finished third, earning his first top 10 since New Hampshire. Struggling with the car all day, the polesitter was happy to come home with a solid result.
"We didn't have a good enough car to win," he said. "We were happy to be where we were but we definitely had a shot and never gave up until it was over with-- We pretty much struggled with the car throughout the race. So it's a great finish. It feels great to get a good finish finally."
Kyle Busch led a race-high 153 laps and ended up in fourth after losing time on the last pitstop. The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet jumped two spots in the Chase, moving to fourth in the standings, 339 points behind Johnson.
Newman, who like Kenseth gambled on two tires on the last stop, finished fifth after falling back late in the race. Jeff Burton brought his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet home in sixth.
Gordon wound up seventh, losing the lead in the Chase, but still recording a solid result. The top ten was completed by Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurry and Kevin Harvick.
Chase contender Clint Bowyer suffered an unlucky race, finishing 19th. The No. 07 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet made two unscheduled pitstops under green for a suspected loose tire. He went three laps down but was able to gain one back. Bowyer, now 181 points behind Johnson, needs a miracle to win the Cup.
Another Chaser who had a solid run going was Hamlin. The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet finished in 29th after slamming the wall on lap 273 while battling for the lead with Kenseth. Hamlin led a total of 45 laps before taking the car behind the wall for repairs.
Half of the Chase drivers have now been mathematically eliminated from claiming the championship title. And with a 181-point gap separating third-placed Bowyer from leader Johnson, it's definitely looking like a two-horse race. Phoenix International Raceway is the next stop on the calendar, a track which Gordon has won at before.