Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski went head-to-head for the win and the lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup in a green-white-checkered finish Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. It was a dramatic conclusion befitting what has developed into an epic confrontation between a five-time champion in Johnson and NASCAR's newest star in Keselowski.
They restarted on the front row, leader Keselowski on the inside. They ran side-by-side through turns one and two before Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet was able to clear Keselowski's No. 2 Dodge and put it in his rear view mirror. It was Johnson's second straight win in the Chase.
Johnson's win at Martinsville a week before had moved him to the front in the points by two over Keselowski. He was able to expand it to seven at Texas with eight Chase races complete and two remaining.
After last year's Chase, in which Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards tied in points after running one-two, respectively, in the finale at Homestead-Miami and Stewart won the title on the tiebreaker with the most wins, it seemed unlikely, perhaps impossible, that we would see another Chase run at such a high competitive level anytime soon, maybe never. Johnson and the No. 48 team and Keselowski and the No. 2 team are racing and delivering a Chase with the same intensity, skill and determination.
"The gloves were off and it was bare knuckles fighting," Johnson said.
Here's five things we learned at Texas.
Keselowski was leading, two seconds in front of Johnson, when a caution came out with 60 laps remaining. He led the lead-lap cars down pit road and slid through his pit box to the far side. It forced him to back up to get around Danica Patrick, pitted directly in front, and he restarted ninth.
Keselowski charged up to fourth before the next yellow. He decided to take two tires on the right side and vaulted ahead of second-running Kyle Busch, Johnson and Clint Bowyer, who all took four tires, into the lead.
Keselowski held the lead through two restarts. He and Johnson appeared to make contact on the second in turn four with nine laps to go, but Keselowski was remarkably fast on two tires and pulled into the lead.
It was the final caution that caught up to Keselowski's gamble to take two.
"I thought I had it, but we kept getting all them yellows and giving them more shots," Keselowski said. "I knew I wasn't going to be able to execute every restart and Jimmie did a great job on the last one. I had to chose between wrecking him and winning the race and that didn't seem right.
"I ran him hard and kept him honest. I know if we keep running like this, we won't be beat."
Johnson timed the restart well, the nose on his Chevrolet slightly ahead of Keselowski's at the start/finish timing line. Johnson also pinned Keselowski farther to the inside than the previous restart and used better momentum to make the pass exiting turn two.
"I think our cars were pretty equal throughout the race," Johnson said. "We were on four (tires) and I had to take advantage of it. The second to last restart was pretty sketchy, a couple of times how close and how hard we were racing. But we brought the cars back and got another restart.
"I had a great restart and once I got by him, I knew we had the speed if we could just get in front."
Bowyer finished sixth and ran in the top-five for most of the race, but he fell 36 points behind Johnson and seems destined for third place in the championship. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver has a win, four top-fives and seven top-10s in the eight Chase races.
"We were close, but no cigar.," Bowyer said. "That's what we were all about tonight. The one thing that could have won us the race just didn't play out with the cautions. I really felt like we were doing a good job with our fuel mileage thing. I thought we were sitting pretty good there until that caution came out with 26 (laps) to go. That being said, you can't be greedy. We could have had right-front (tire) trouble again like we did earlier. Solid night.
"It's just unbelievable. You keep having these top-10 runs and flirting with the top-fives week-in and week-out, and unless you're winning these races every week you just can't gain points. Even if we were winning right now, it ain't enough to run them down for a championship."
Busch led 80 laps and finished third at Texas, his fifth top-five in eight Chase races. It won't diminish the fact he didn't make the Chase, but it is evidence the No. 18 team hasn't lost its will to succeed.
"You've got to continue to work hard and strive to get better," Busch said. "For missing the Chase by what we did, yeah, we had a lot of technical problems, but I'm sure there were a few races where we could have finished better. So, we've got to get better in every opportunity that we can.
"This last 10 weeks have been pretty good. We've run well. We've been fast. We've shown speed. Maybe we've been third to fifth or third to sixth-place cars. Tonight I felt like we were a winning car if we could have gotten out front. I think track position meant that much, which we'll say that every week. It's just a matter of continuing to evolve and get better as a team and communicate because this car is obsolete in two weeks. So we'll work on all of that stuff in 2013."
Working with crew chief Tony Gibson in their first race, Patrick's Chevrolet was the last car on the lead lap. It was her ninth career start in Cup.
"It was a great day and a great weekend for the first weekend working together," Gibson said. "Qualifying went really well, and practice went really well. She had an awesome race, and she did a great job. We did the wave-around twice and got back on the lead lap early, and she stayed on the lead lap. She ran with guys that she's never run with before: Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin. To come here and run on the lead lap and a shot at a top-20 was pretty impressive."
Patrick's previous best was 25th at Chicagoland in September.
"We had a really nice first weekend together," Patrick said. "It was really steady from the beginning. The GoDaddy Chevy unloaded, and it had speed right off the get-go. We just kept on improving with it. I felt like it was a nice progression of the weekend, where I actually felt like I knew I why I went faster and I knew why I went slower. In the race, we were creeping along. We spent most of the race tight, but there late in the race we finally got it freed up enough to start really running some good speed."
Johnson's victory lifted Chevrolet, the all-time leading winning manufacturer in the Cup, to another milestone. Johnson has 60 of them. Fonty Flock drove Chevrolet to its first victory in Cup on March 26, 1955 at Columbia Raceway in Columbia, S.C.