FORT WORTH, Texas -- They labeled it the "Wild Asphalt Circus," and it did not disappoint. A sideshow with a bearded lady and a dog-faced man. Motorcyclists spinning around and upside down in something called the Globe of Death. Midway games, and a juggler flipping flaming batons into the air. There were even crazy unintended consequences, like a sandbag from a skydiver's Texas flag banging into the side of Kevin Harvick's car during pre-race ceremonies, and requiring the vehicle to undergo about 30 minutes of emergency repairs.
So yes, it was typical Texas Motor Speedway, the kind of place where you're liable to see a spectator lugging a large stuffed banana down pit road. But nothing track president Eddie Gossage could dream up commanded as much attention Sunday as what unfolded on his 1.5-mile oval, where the two combatants for the Sprint Cup title went at one another like they were bare-chested, handlebar-mustached brawlers trading blows under a big top tent.
A two-man duel in the standings became a two-man duel on the race track, as the championship battle between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski went as hot as the flames emanating from Texas' pyrotechnic-heavy Victory Lane. Contact on the race track, allegations over the radio, nail-biting restarts that featured the No. 2 and No. 48 cars lining up alongside one another again and again and again. The sport's two best teams pitted strength against strength, daring one another to blink in an event that jacked the intensity level of this Chase to new heights.
And in the end there was Johnson, running the kind of flawless race he's built his reputation on, winning for the second time in as many weeks and increasing his lead over Keselowski to seven points with two races remaining. It didn't come without a fight, which at one point had Johnson screaming over the radio that Keselowski had jumped a late restart, and had the contenders banging off one another near the end. But a slide through the pit box by the No. 2 car, a decision to take only right-sides for track position, a spin of the tires at the end -- small differences, yes, but those small things add up against an adversary that never seems to make a mistake.
"When you catch the breaks that he caught today with the yellows and then you execute like they can, you're unbeatable," said Keselowski, who finished second. And granted, a flurry of cautions late in the event relieved a large fuel-mileage concern in the No. 48 camp, which has had its issues this season when it comes to saving gas. At one point, Johnson was running third, and crew chief Chad Knaus mentioned that Keselowski was running faster while still saving fuel. When it comes to the five-time champions, the way the No. 2 team won races at Chicagoland and Dover have not been forgotten.
But given the way the second half of Sunday's race developed, it seemed wishful thinking to hope for a finish similar to the 100-lap green-flag run that unfolded at the start. As he has been throughout this Chase, Keselowski was absolutely on his game, weathering an opening onslaught from Johnson before wresting control as daylight turned to dark. The one miscue he made was tiny -- he locked up his brakes entering his pit stall during a yellow-flag stop with 58 laps remaining, sliding through his stall. He was forced to back up before pulling out, a move that cost him seven spots on the race track.
To try and make up that position, the No. 2 team characteristically took a chance. During what proved the final round of pit stops with 24 laps left in regulation, Keselowski took just right-side tires -- a move that gave him the lead, but would make it that much more difficult to hold Johnson off at the end. Particularly once a late accident forced the event into green-white-checkered finish, forcing Keselowski to go the final 60 laps with the same tires on the left side of the car. "I thought that was the right thing to do," Keselowski said. "Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn't. Who knows? But it was worth a shot."
The shots were just beginning. "The 2 car completely jumped the restart, NASCAR!" Johnson howled over the radio as Keselowski shot out to a lead on the ensuing green flag, an assessment backed up by similar complaints from eventual third-place finisher Kyle Busch. "On the front stretch for the restart, there were two lines there for a reason," Johnson said after the race. "I felt like he went really early and caught us both off guard."
Keselowski's take: "I think NASCAR said before, they're not going to get out a micrometer and measure that kind of stuff," he said. "That's kind of the interpretation of the rules right now. Via that interpretation, I think it was probably fair play on both sides."
It was the first of three crucial restarts that effectively decided the race. Keselowski won the opener, even on wearing left-sides. He won the second, too, required after Kasey Kahne bounced up into the wall. "Now's your opportunity," Knaus told Johnson over the radio. "Oh yeah, I'm ready for some opportunity," his driver retorted. But still Keselowski was dogged, making those right-side tires count for all they were worth, wiggling up the track and making door-to-door contact with Johnson, who was running up high. Everyone held their breath -- until Keselowski squirted ahead, somehow still in the lead.
"I felt like we were just going to wreck," Keselowski said. "I wasn't looking to be the guy that wrecked him poorly. ... 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."
So was Johnson. "If he was taking me out, you can count on the fact that I would have been on the gas and trying to take him with me," he said. "You know, it just doesn't need to come down to that."
Thankfully, it didn't, evidenced by the fact that Keselowski went to Victory Lane to congratulate Johnson after the race. From behind the wheel of his No. 88 car, eventual seventh-place finishes Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a front-row seat for the action, and didn't see anything out of hand.
"I didn't see anything that stood out to me as ridiculous," Earnhardt said. "They are running for a championship. There's a lot to winning a championship, and them guys out there ought to be willing to do anything. Anything goes at this point. If it was a couple of guys just racing for a win early in the season, that would be kind of hair-brained to run like they did. But that's exactly what the sport needs, and exactly what the fans want to see. I know they probably loved the heck out of that."
Johnson would get one more shot, coming when Mark Martin crashed to force the event into extra laps. "You're faster than he is. We've seen that," Knaus urged him. Once again, the title contenders restarted alongside on the front row. This time, though, Keselowski spun his mismatched tires just enough, giving the No. 48 car the opening it needed. "Clear clear clear clear," Johnson's spotter, Earl Barban, intoned from atop the grandstand. Suddenly that blue and white Chevy was all alone, hurtling toward another victory, taking another step toward a potential sixth championship.
"I felt like restarts are like rock, paper, scissors," Keselowski said. "Eventually, you're going to lose them. It's just a matter of time. There's always time to counteract the strategy. To win two out of three, I felt lucky to do that. Obviously, I didn't win the last one that counts."
A slide through the pit box, a need to take two tires rather than four, a spin of the wheels on what proved the last restart -- it's not much. But against Johnson, it doesn't have to be. And in a sport where three points decided this year's final Chase berth and a tiebreaker determined last season's champion, little things mean a lot. No wonder Johnson spoke somewhat confidently about heading to Phoenix with a lead that could get wiped out should he finish sixth and Keselowski win next weekend's race.
Wild? Absolutely. But the circus? It's only beginning.
"It's a small amount of control, but we're definitely in control," Johnson said. "We don't have to catch any or make up any points. Seven points is nothing to feel comfortable about and to relax on. We're still going to go into Phoenix and act as if we're behind, and go in there to try to sit on the pole and win the race again."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
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- Brad Keselowski
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