Maximum Points. Maybe that’s going to be Jimmie Johnson’s new nickname.
For the second week in a row, the driver known as “Five-Time” – for his five consecutive championships – got every point he could out of a race, again both winning from the pole and leading the most laps to extend his lead in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Johnson pushed his lead from two points to seven over Brad Keselowski with the win in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday night.
With exquisite touch on a restart with two laps to go, the 11th-year Cup veteran eased the nose of his No. 48 Chevrolet past Keselowski’s No. 2 Dodge as they crossed the start/finish line and powered past to make the final lap no contest.
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“It was bare-knuckle fighting,” Johnson said. “I have a lot of respect for that No. 2 team.”
On a restart 10 laps earlier, Keselowski had used everything he had – maybe too much, possibly getting away with a jump of the green flag – to get away from Johnson. He was six laps away from the win and retaking the Chase lead for himself when Mark Martin spun in the back of the pack, bringing out the caution that resulted in the final restart.
“I just thought I had it,” said Keselowski, who also won a restart against Kyle Busch with 19 laps to go. “But kept getting all them yellows. Kept giving them more shots. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep giving them all those chances.”
For Johnson, it was his second victory at TMS, where he also won in 2007 during his run of five consecutive championships. And it was his second victory from the pole in two weeks. Just like he did last week at Martinsville, Va., Johnson gained the maximum 48 points – 43 for finishing first, three bonus points for winning, a bonus point for leading a lap and a bonus point for leading the most laps.
Keselowski scored 42 points with the runner-up finish and picked up a bonus point for leading a lap.
“We caught a couple bad breaks today and still put out a solid effort,” said Keselowski, who ran sixth to Johnson two weeks ago at Martinsville. “I feel confident that if we keep putting efforts out like this, we can win races and be tough to beat for the championship. It was a fun day. I really enjoyed this race.”
But a seven-point lead with two races to go – at Phoenix and then Miami-Homestead – gives Johnson breathing room. It is the largest deficit Keselowski has had in the Chase. And he has never won at either Phoenix or Homestead. Johnson has won four times at Phoenix.
“I wish we were in Phoenix right now, getting ready to start the next race,” Johnson said.
Keselowski has gone face-to-face with Johnson and won before. He did it at Dover in the same kind of situation, beating the 48 driver at his own game. Sunday night, Keselowski again did not back down as he tried to keep the lead in the restarts.
On the second-to-last green flag, he aggressively defended his line against Johnson, making contact as they drove side to side that threatened to send them both loose off the track.
But “Bad Brad” backed off those tactics on the last restart.
“I wasn’t looking to be the guy that wrecked him for a lead,” he said. “I really didn’t enjoy the last time that happened, and I don’t think he did, either. That’s not the way you want to win a race, and not the way you want to win a championship. That was the only choice I had, to put us both in a bad position like I did the time before. I felt lucky to survive that one.”
Johnson tipped his hat – his race-winner cowboy hat – to Keselowski for that.
“If he was taking me out, count on me being on the gas and trying to take him out with me,” Johnson said. “The cool thing about it is we walked right up to the line and stopped. He showed a very class move coming up to me in Victory Lane and shaking my hand.”
Why not? With two races to go, they are the last two drivers with a realistic chance at the Sprint Cup championship.
One of them will be shaking the other’s hand again soon enough.