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Keselowski, Johnson only gained lessons at caution-high Kansas

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- When it was over, nothing had changed.

Brad Keselowski left Kansas Speedway with the same seven-point lead he had on Jimmie Johnson when they arrived, and both men shared conflicted emotions afterward -- acknowledging lost opportunities but also happy to survive the brutal race.

Keselowski says the championship will go all the way to next month's season finale at Homestead, but Sunday's race -- enlivened by a season-high 14 cautions -- could have more of an impact than might be remembered.

This could be the race in which Johnson saved his bid for a sixth championship by finishing ninth.

Or it could be the race where Keselowski benefited from Johnson's mistake and moved closer to his first Sprint Cup title.

Although Johnson didn't gain any points on Keselowski, he might have gained the advantage. The series heads this week to Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson has six wins and placed outside the top 10 only twice since 2002, whereas Keselowski has two top-10 finishes in six career starts there. Had Keselowski taken advantage of Johnson's misfortune Sunday, he could have built a larger cushion going into the season's final short-track race.

It appeared as if that would happen when Johnson spun and backed into the wall just past the race's halfway mark.

"I was pretty bummed out and assumed that we were going to be many laps down,'' Johnson said.

Crew chief Chad Knaus called the damage "pretty significant,'' but the team massaged, molded and hammered the back of the car into place in about half a dozen pit stops while staying on the lead lap.

"I have never in my 30 years of racing seen anybody perform that kind of surgery and not lose a lap,'' car owner Rick Hendrick said.

Knaus said it helped that the rear-end housing remained intact, the track bar was uninjured and the trailing arms appeared to be fine. The challenge was how the damage upset the car's aerodynamics. Johnson noted the left rear quarter panel was "blown out and [acting like] a big parachute,'' creating havoc with the car's handling.

Another issue the team had was that the damage made it tricky to refuel the car during pit stops. Johnson's team didn't fill the gas tank once and he was forced to come back in with 47 laps to go, slowing his progress.

He rallied in the final 37 laps, gaining nine spots, and Keselowski gained only one spot during that time.

Although Johnson scored a top-10 finish, he wasn't thrilled. He called the spin his fault and it left him wondering what might have been.

"Without my mistake, I think we had a shot to win,'' Johnson said on pit road after he surveyed his car's damage. "Everything else today and this weekend was really good except for one corner.''

Knaus said he'd review the incident with Johnson and then move forward.

"We have to learn from mistakes,'' Knaus said. "If we don't, then we'll never get better. It's going to be pretty easy to put this one behind us since we're going to Martinsville.''

Keselowski, who placed eighth, will have to do the same thing.

Finishing a spot ahead of Johnson's wrecked car could be demoralizing to a team that has been among the best on 1.5-mile speedways similar to Kansas since May. Sunday, they weren't as strong and often stuck in the pack.

"It wasn't a great day, it wasn't a bad day,'' Keselowski said. "It was a day where we survived a lot of circumstances out of our control.''

That's not the biggest issue for this team, though.

His Chase-worst 25th-qualifying spot didn't help.

In all five victories this season, Keselowski qualified no worse than 13th. While he's finished in the top 10 in five of the last six races that he qualified outside the top 20, he's not making it easy on himself.

"It was hard to overcome 25th at a repaved track where it's one lane,'' crew chief Paul Wolfe said. "That's the biggest thing we fought. We're going to have to figure that out to win this championship.''

It could have been worse for Keselowski. Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman wrecked in front of him, which forced Keselowski to race through the gap between the spinning cars. Had he been collected in that incident -- one of 12 cautions for spins or accidents -- it could have dramatically changed the Chase.

"[I'm] just amazed we made it through there,'' Keselowski said.

He wasn't so fortunate in last fall's Martinsville race. Keselowski entered the race third in the standings, 18 points behind Carl Edwards but a point ahead of Tony Stewart. Keselowski's title hopes all but ended when he was spun in a chain-reaction incident while running sixth with three laps to go. NASCAR didn't call for a caution and Keselowski finished 17th, tumbling 27 points out of the lead. That forced he and Wolfe to gamble more with their calls in the final three races, but it wasn't enough to challenge Stewart and Edwards.

With that in mind, Keselowski conceded last week that Kansas and Martinsville would "two of the toughest weeks for my team.''

"Martinsville is just one of those tracks where it seems like there's numerous variables that we've struggled with, and I don't think they're our fault,'' he said.

It often isn't at Martinsville, but getting through such races is what makes a champion. Just like Sunday. Sometimes, it's not about leaving a track excited but just moving one step closer to your goal.

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