Brad Keselowski led 312 of 334 laps in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway after starting on the pole and having the fastest car by a mile all weekend. However, when it counted the most, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson put himself in position to pass the No. 2 of Keselowski with six laps remaining, and got the job done.
Johnson led six laps all afternoon, but got his sixth career win at Texas, and his fourth consecutive in the fall race at the Fort Worth venue.
“I could see that he was really tight and that was the first I had seen him that vulnerable all day,”said Johnson in a victory lane interview with NBCSN. “I just kept the pressure on him, kept searching for a line. He saw me coming on the top and protected it. I just kept trying to put pressure on him hoping for a mistake.”
This was Johnson’s first win in a whopping 20 races, which is unheard of for the No. 48 team, who has dominated the Sprint Cup Series this decade.
Heartbreak quickly turned into reality for the runner-up Keselowski. He is now in a win-or-go-home situation heading into this weekend’s race at Phoenix International Raceway, which has been absolutely dominated by Kevin Harvick.
“The No. 48 car had mega turn that last run, I couldn’t keep the turn in it and I just kept it pushing real bad,” said Keselowski in an interview with NBCSN, as he wiped the sweat from his forehead after a near flawless performance. “I did everything I could to hold him off but he was WAY faster that last run. We really needed to win this win, but I gave it my all, and I feel good about that.”
The 2012 champion also mentioned a debris caution at the end of the race that ultimately led to Johnson getting by him. It was unfortunate for Keselowski, but it benefitted fellow Chase driver Harvick.
If you head over to Cedar Point and ride any roller coaster, you experienced what defending champion Harvick experienced during the race. After suffering a blown tire on lap 36, which brought out a caution, he was forced to pit and sat down in 39th place, and it was like a video game watching him maneuver his way back through the field. He got back to second place before he suffered a tire puncture due to debris on the track with only 52 laps remaining. This time, the race stayed green, and Harvick fell back in the field. His day, and Chase, looked to be in trouble.
After green flag pit stops cycled through, a late race caution came out, forcing everybody to pit for tires. Harvick was able to get back on sequence with the leaders, get his car dialed in and somehow, finish third. He even drove the last 100 laps with one hand due to his shifter jumping out of gear if he didn’t hold it in place.
Harvick said the circulation in his arm cut off and he had to hold the shifter with only his right hand, steering a 3,500 pound stock car through tricky turns at the Texas Motor Speedway, three-four times against the force of gravity. Who says NASCAR drivers aren’t athletes? Not me!
Someone who didn’t experience good fortune like Harvick was Joey Logano. On lap nine, Logano suffered a flat tire which ripped apart the left rear of the car, forcing the No. 22 team to go behind the wall for repairs. After being at the center of headlines all week due to his dust-up with Matt Kenseth, this is now what the No. 22 needed.
“Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches,” said Logano in an interview with NBCSN. “We will be ready for Phoenix. This team is strong. We didn’t take any wind out of our sails today and we showed how fast this thing was even after we crashed.”
Logano sits at the bottom of the point standings, a whopping 63 points behind the cut off, making it mathematically impossible for him to advance to the championship four. He, along with teammate Keselowski (19 behind cutoff), and Kurt Busch (28 behind cutoff after his seventh-place finish) can’t bank on points to advance them into the next round: they need to win, and they know it.
Jeff Gordon (finished ninth), on the other hand, can still breathe easy, as his ticket was punched last weekend at Martinsville Speedway.
Carl Edwards is only six points behind the cut off, where Martin Truex Jr. sits, for a spot in the final four. His fifth place finish wasn’t enough to put him in a position to transfer after Texas. His teammate, Kyle Busch, finished fourth and sits in a good position (second in the points standings) following another solid run from the No. 18 team.
Staying with the Joe Gibbs Racing organization, Denny Hamlin had a rough afternoon, as he finished 38th after early troubles with the No. 11 car Erik Jones. Jones won the Truck race Friday and ran in the top ten for most of the Xfinity race Saturday. He came home a solid 12th in the Cup race. He was running inside the top ten for a good portion of the race, and that is a sign of things to come in this sport for the future.
Tires were a big issue during the race. Logano (finished 40th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (rebounded to finish sixth), Harvick (twice), Ryan Blaney (finished 43rd), Kyle Larson (finished 37th), Trevor Bayne (finished 39th) and Ryan Newman (finished 22nd) all suffered flat or punctured tires. This tire compound is the same that will be run in two weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway and something to keep an eye out for.
So, what did we learn this weekend in the AAA Texas 500? Well, a few things.
1. Jimmie Johnson is still Jimmie Johnson: He is capable of winning races week in and week out, despite being eliminated from the Chase in the first round.
2. The dominant car of the 2015 playoffs, Joey Logano, MUST win in order to stay alive next weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. If he doesn’t, he’s toast. So does his teammate, Keselowski, and former Team Penske driver, Kurt Busch, as they haven’t been able to overcome their bad race at Martinsville.
3.We could have a surprise final four, with an abundance of storylines: Jeff Gordon is on the final lap of his career and Martin Truex Jr., who has overcome adversity in the past couple years both on and off the track, is in prime position with a single-car operation to get to Homestead. Kyle Busch suffered a horrific injury before the Cup season started and was unsure if he’d ever race again this season. Harvick, a Bakersfield, California native, is going for his second-straight championship in the No. 4 car.
One thing is for sure, it’s a great time to be a NASCAR fan. Regardless of what the sanctioning body says, and what the fans say about them, we all tune in and are rewarded with great racing. Next weekend at Phoenix, I would bet, won’t be different.