For the past two weeks, Jimmie Johnson has shut out Brad Keselowski.
Despite Keselowski finishing second on Sunday, Johnson earned the maximum points at both Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway – by leading the most laps and winning the two races.
His victory in the AAA Texas 500 Sunday extended his advantage over Keselowski by seven points with two races remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“Two more of these (expletive) victories we’ve got to get and we got a big one waiting for us,” Johnson said after taking the checkered flag. “The gloves are off and it’s bare-knuckle fighting. I have a lot of respect for that No. 2 team (of Brad Keselowski). Those guys are doing a great job."
Keselowski didn’t make it easy for Johnson. In turn, multiple cautions in the closing laps foiled any shot that the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge had of maintaining the lead, particularly after the team elected to take two tires as opposed to the No. 48 team’s decision to take four tires on Lap 312.
“Can’t do anything when someone is handed the race time after time,” Keselowski said over the radio. “Good job though.”
Keselowski’s disappointment is understandable. He gave it his all on Sunday night. He led for the first of five times on Lap 106 and was ahead of Johnson before the banality of fuel conservation ended and racing took over.
However, on the leaders’ penultimate pit stop on Lap 276, Keselowski feared locking up his brakes and ended up too deep in his pit stall. Danica Patrick, who had the stall ahead of Keselowski, blocked the No. 2 Dodge in behind her and forced him to back up his car before exiting the pits. He lost the point and dropped to ninth for the restart with 54 laps remaining. Thirty-three laps later, Keselowski regained the lead from Johnson with a two-tire pit stop but his progress was slowed by two additional cautions.
Keselowski edged Johnson into the high groove over the first restart on Lap 327 to take the lead.
“Our cars were pretty equal throughout the course of the race and at the end of the race we were on four (tires and) had to take advantage of it,” Johnson said. “That second-to-last restart was pretty sketchy a couple of times how close we were and how hard we were racing. Luckily, we brought the cars back.”
But Keselowski couldn’t hold Johnson off on the final restart for the green-white-checkered finish on Lap 333. Keselowski spun his tires and lost control of the point.
“The restarts made the difference,” Keselowski said. “Jimmie probably would have gotten me with an extended amount of laps to go. But with only five or six to go when we had the lead, I felt pretty good about it.
“But getting that last yellow, I felt like restarts are like rock, paper, scissors. 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.”
For Keselowski, his frustration is magnified knowing just how competitive his team is right now. With two races remaining, Keselowski knows he must win a race or two and have the breaks fall in his favor to stay in the hunt. But he’s far from giving up.
“When you catch the breaks that he caught today with the yellows and then you execute like they can, you’re unbeatable,” Keselowski said. “I’m confident that we can execute at a high level. I’m confident that the way it’s worked over the last three weeks — we haven’t caught good breaks or bad breaks, and he’s caught several really good ones. I’m confident that that will come back around, and when it does, we’ll change these seconds and fifths or whatever they are over the last few weeks into wins.
“I feel like that’s bound to happen over the next two weeks, and we have the team to pull it off. I also feel like the way the points are right now, we still control our own destiny, which is if we win the race, we get the points lead. So that’s about all you can ask for.”
To pull off the upset, Keselowski will have to beat the five-time champions. While the No. 48 team insists it has been racing conservatively throughout the Chase, Johnson predicts “a lot of hard racing” before it’s all over. And even though he has a seven-point advantage, Johnson’s strategy for Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway will be to race as if he’s playing catch up.
“There is not going to be any breathing easy until the end,” Johnson said. Breathing a little bit better. I was two points and now we’ve got seven, but there is a lot of racing left. We are running up front, running one-two all the time it doesn’t mean it will be that way for the final two races.”
Kyle and Kurt Busch were the only non-Chase drivers to post top-10 finishes on Sunday.
Kyle and Kurt finished third and eighth, respectively. For Kyle, it was his fifth top-five and sixth top-10 finish in the Chase. He’s led 436 laps in the last seven races.
Although he’s not battling for the title this year, Kyle is looking at building the No. 18 team for a run in 2013.
“We’ve got to get better in every opportunity that we can,” Busch said. “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.”
Kurt’s performance was his best since replacing Regan Smith at Furniture Row Racing four races ago. He also posted his top oval-track finish of the season. His best finish in 2012 was third at Sonoma. Like his brother, Kurt’s using the Chase to prepare for next year.
“We battled back to get a top 10,” said Kurt Busch, started 18th. “Considering that we had a top-five or top-10 car at the last two races but got nailed in accidents, it was important to come away with a solid finish today. We’ve made a lot of progress as a team in a short period of time which gives us plenty of optimism for 2013. However, we still have some handling issues to work out, but we’re getting there. This was only our fourth race together and I am really proud of how we came back after struggling for a good finish.”
3: Positions Matt Kenseth (fifth) gained with his fourth-place finish at Texas.
18: Top-five finishes for Jimmie Johnson in 2012.
60: Career wins for Johnson, 700 for Chevrolet in Sprint Cup.
Tony Stewart on Brad Keselowski’s performance over the closing laps: “I think Keselowski has a death wish.”