Johnson increases points lead by winning in Texas

John Sturbin, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Jimmie Johnson tightened his grip on the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and "saw Elvis" Sunday evening at Texas Motor Speedway, outhustling point-runnerup Brad Keselowski on a green-white-checkered finish to win the eighth annual AAA Texas 500.
A flurry of late-race pit stops set up the final three-lap dash, with Johnson taking the lead on the outside through Turns 1 and 2 of a race originally scheduled for 334 laps but extended to 335 on TMS' high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval.
"The way we raced this evening, that's the first time we've engaged at that level and raced that hard," said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet Impala fielded by Hendrick Motorsports. "To his (Keselowski's) credit he did a great job of taking it to the edge. We didn't wad 'em up and hand the victory to the No. 18 (of Kyle Busch)."
Busch, who is not among the 12 drivers competing in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, finished third and was followed by Chaser Matt Kenseth and three-time and reigning series champion Tony Stewart.
"The way things have been going, you've got to win races to get the points," Johnson said. "Win the pole, lead the most laps, win the's a big deal. Things are rolling. Just proud of the effort tonight."
Johnson, whose margin of victory was 0.808 seconds, posted his fifth win and 24th top-10 result of 2012. A five-time Cup champion, Johnson also won last Sunday's race at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway, exiting with a two-point lead over Keselowski. With his win Sunday, Johnson stretched his overall lead to seven points (2,339-2,332) heading into Round 9 of the 10-race playoff next Sunday on the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway. The season will end at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 18.
"I feel it's a heads-up match going into Phoenix and going into Homestead," said Keselowski, who held the point lead for four consecutive weeks before Johnson overtook him at Martinsville. "I'm enjoying it. It's a lot of fun to do. I feel like we're fighting the good fight and doing some great things as a team. I appreciate the fact that it's difficult."
Clint Bowyer's sixth-place finish left him third in the title hunt, 36 points behind Johnson and 29 behind "Bad Brad."
Keselowski, who had taken only right-side tires during his last pit stop on Lap 312, banged fenders with Johnson exiting Turn 4 on Lap 328 on a restart following the race's eighth caution.
"I was a little shocked by his (Keselowski's) commitment into Turn 1," Johnson said of that restart. "I know I've talked about 'seeing Elvis.' We went past Elvis. I don't know who's coming up next but I knew he was serious about the race lead.
"I pointed at him (before the last restart) and wanted him to use his head. If he was taking me out, you can count that I would have been on the gas and took him out with me. The cool thing is we walked right up to that line and it stopped. And he came into Victory Lane and shook my hand afterwards, too."
With his victory here, Johnson pushed his Chase wins total to 22 and presented Chevrolet its milestone 700th Cup victory.
The Johnson-Keselowski duel was interrupted on Lap 331, when Mark Martin's crash on the frontstretch brought out the ninth caution and set up the dramatic finish.
"The restarts made the difference," said Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge fielded by Penske Racing. "Jimmie probably would have got me with an extended amount of laps to go, but getting that last yellow...eventually you're going to lose them (tires and grip). To win two out of three (restarts), I felt lucky to do that. But I didn't win the last one that counts."
Pole-sitter Johnson dominated the early going, leading 164 laps before Busch and Keselowski took turns at the point. Johnson finished with a race-leading 168 laps led, with Busch pacing 80 laps in his No. 18 Snickers Toyota Camry. Keselowski led 75 as that trio combined to lead all but 12 laps.
Cautions on Lap 311, 322 and 331 put a premium on restarts on a track that started out slick but tightened up as the sun went down.
"Every restart I spun the tires," Keselowski said. "We did the best we could. I raced hard, and I'm sure someone will say I raced dirty. I raced hard, so there's something to be said for that.
"It don't feel good (to finish second), but there's a part of you that feels you're first-in-class. When you catch the breaks he (Johnson) did with the yellows and execute, you're unbeatable. I'm confident we can execute at a high level. I'm confident that will come back around and when it does we'll change these seconds and fifths into wins. I feel that's bound to happen in the next few weeks. And I feel the way the points are, we still control our own destiny."
Notes: Pre-race festivities as part of the track's new "No Limits Wild Asphalt Circus" included the obligatory skydiver, who will not be added to Kevin Harvick's Christmas card list. A free-hanging weight on the bottom of the diver's large Texas flag struck the left-side door panel of Harvick's No. 29 Rheem/Budweiser Chevrolet Impala as it sat on pit road. The diver, a member of the RE/MAX Skydiving Team, flew over the car's hood before landing on the frontstretch infield grass. But the weight left a dent in the white "9" on the car's left side. Nonetheless, the jumper later went over to the car and posed in front of the dent. The team-owner and NASCAR officials were not amused. NASCAR gave crew chief Gil Martin permission to roll the Richard Childress Racing entry back to the garage for a quick repair. The car was then rolled back to its original starting spot (23rd) on the grid. Harvick won the O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge Nationwide Series race Saturday night. But with his ninth-place finish Sunday, Harvick now is 0-for-20 in Cup races here. ... Despite a surface described as "slick" by most drivers during practice, the first 100 laps of Sunday's race were run caution-free. The Samsung Mobile 500 contested here on April 14 finished with 234 caution-free laps, with the combined total of 334 laps adding up to one full Cup race. The streak ended with a caution for debris in Turn 2 on lap 101, and was followed by a second flag for A.J. Allmendinger's crash exiting Turn 4 on Lap 110. ... Marcos Ambrose finished 32nd in the debut of Drew Blickensderfer as crew chief of the No. 9 Mac Tools Ford Fusion. Blickensderfer joined Richard Petty Motorsport on Tuesday following an amicable parting from Richard Childress Racing, where he was paired with Jeff Burton and the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevy. Blickensderfer replaced Mike Ford, who took over for Brad Parrott seven races ago.

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