FORT WORTH, Texas -- If you had any doubts that this Chase wasn't going to be an appropriate sequel to last year's battle between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, your feelings should be assuaded after Sunday's AAA Texas 500 after the two drivers atop the Sprint Cup Series points standings traded figurative punches over a flurry of late race restarts.
Five-time champion and incumbent points leader Jimmie Johnson pulled away from Brad Keselowski on the race's ultimate restart with two laps to go to take the race win and extend his points lead by five to seven points with two races to go.
It was a relatively anti-climactic finish after a torrential sequence of racing between the two just before Mark Martin's crash to bring out the race's final caution. On that restart with nine scheduled laps to go, Keselowski started on the inside as the race leader, and drove into turn three on the first lap of the restart with Johnson seemingly attached to his outside.
That got Keselowski loose and allowed Johnson to pull away, albeit for a flash. Keselowski somehow kept the car pointed straight with his foot in the gas and pulled up alongside Johnson on the frontstretch as he wiggled with eight laps to go. As the two dove into one again attached at the sidepanels, Keselowski's car bobbled again. But he stayed in the gas. Again.
As he moved up the track, he Johnson went with him to avoid any contact. Finally, as the two hurtled through turn two, Johnson had to get out of the gas, and Keselowski pulled away, seemingly for the final time. Until Martin crashed.
"I raced hard, and I'm sure someone would say dirty," Keselowski said. Hell, anytime you run close to certain guys you're racing them dirty according to certain people. But I raced hard and we both came back around, so there's something to be said for that."
After that restart Johnson wasn't happy with Keselowski, saying he jumped the restart, and when the caution for Martin came out, he pulled up alongside Keselowski to show his displeasure for the racing that had taken place. However, afterwards, out of the heat of the moment, Johnson acknowledged the racing that got hot, but didn't boil over.
"I just pointed at him and wanted him to use his head," Johnson said. "There's no sense in taking us both out in the process. If he was taking me out you can count on the fact that I would have been in the gas and trying to take him with me. And it just doesn't need to come down to that.
"Brad also after the race came into victory lane and shook my hand. The cool thing about it is we walked up to that line, we got right to the edge. And then it stopped and he showed a very class move coming to victory lane and shaking my hand afterwards too."
On the ultimate restart, Keselowski spun the tires ever so slightly, which allowed Johnson to beat him to the line. Even with Keselowski as they headed into turn one, Johnson pinched him down to the white line and took off like a rocket.
"Yeah, I felt like we were just going to wreck. I wasn't looking to be the guy that wrecked him poorly," Keselowski said. I didn't really enjoy the last time that happened with Kyle (Busch) over here (at Bristol in the Nationwide Series), 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 and not the way I want to win a championship."
"That was pretty much the only choice I had was to put ourselves in a bad position like I did before. I felt lucky to survive that one."
After pitting from the lead on lap 276, Keselowski wanted to stop short in his pit stall for a clean exit, but slid the tires as he slowed to a stop. So instead of a clean exit, his crew was forced to push him backwards so he could get out, and he fell from first to ninth.
He worked his way up to fifth when the caution came out on lap 311 for Marcos Ambrose's crash, and while the four cars in front took four tires, Keselowski took two, allowing him to leave the pits in first.
At a track like Texas that has fairly significant tire fall-off, it was impressive that Keselowski was able to hold off the four fresh-tired drivers behind him on two restarts. And when he had sprinted away from Johnson after their dustup, it looked like it'd be the winning strategy and one that would have given him a one point lead heading into Phoenix and Homestead.
"But getting that last yellow — and with restarts, and I've used this analogy, they're like rock, paper, scissors," Keselowski said. "Eventually you're going to lose them, it's just a matter of time, because there's always a strategy to counter-act the strategy. To win two out of three I felt lucky to do that, but I didn't win the last one today."
And it meant that Johnson won the race and lengthened his points lead. While Keselowski said he feels he controls his own destiny, as he could win the championship by winning the final two races and leading the most laps if Johnson finishes second, Johnson likes his spot too, especially after winning back to back races from the first starting position.
"It's a small amount of control but we're definitely in control," Johnson said. "We don't have to make up any points. Seven points is nothing to feel comfortable about or to relax on. So we're going to go into Phoenix and act as if we're behind and go in there to try and sit on the pole and win the race again."