Perhaps this is a near-perfect championship fight for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title:
Have at least two drivers slug it out as if they were boxers in a heavyweight title bout. They feverishly trade punches and get a bit bloodied. But when the fight is over both are still standing and one wins by the slightest of margins.
After the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway it seems, for now, that is exactly what we have.
Points leader Jimmie Johnson won the race when he passed Brad Keselowski, who was a mere two points in arrears when the race started, on the last lap to secure his second straight win in the Chase For The Sprint Cup.
As a result Johnson is now seven points in front of Keselowski as he seeks to win his sixth championship in the last seven years. There are only two races remaining in the Chase – in other words, there are two more rounds left in this heavyweight fight.
And either man could win.
At Texas, Johnson did virtually everything he needed to do to secure a title. He not only won the race, he led the most laps (168) to gather valuable bonus points which, in turn, allowed him to pad his margin over Keselowski.
In a fight for a championship, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Still, the issue was in doubt until the very end of the race.
Keselowski, who drives for Penske Racing, was in control of the race by lap 313 of 334. When the race’s eighth caution period began on lap 322, caused by debris on the track following Kasey Kahne’s meeting with the wall, Johnson led just one lap after the restart on lap 327.
Keselowski, running as fast as he had throughout the race – and with only two fresh tires – retook the lead and was in front of Johnson and third-place Kyle Busch.
But with just three laps to go, Mark Martin crashed after a brush with Carl Edwards, which brought out another caution period and set up a green-white-checkered finish.
On the restart Johnson took the advantage. Using an outside line, he whisked past Keselowski, who seemed to slip a bit and may have decided it was best to let up rather than be involved in an incident.
Johnson, who said the restarts with Keselowski were “very physical,” admitted that he gestured a warning notice to his rival prior to the final dash. “There is no sense in taking us both out in the process,” he said. “If he was taking me out, you can count on the fact that I would have been on the gas and trying to take him with me.
“You know, it just doesn’t need to come down to that. Brad, also, after the race, came into victory lane and shook my hand.
“The cool thing about it is we walked right up to that line, got right to the edge, and then it stopped. He showed a very classy move coming to victory lane and shaking my hand afterwards, too.”
Keselowski admitted that on the last restart that, for him, discretion was the better part of valor.
“Yeah, I felt like we were just going to wreck,” he said. “I wasn’t looking to be the guy that wrecked him poorly.
“I didn’t really enjoy the last time that happened with Kyle (Busch) over here, and I don’t think he did either. He might not believe that, but that’s just not the way you want to run a race, and not the way I want to win a championship.
“That was pretty much the only choice I had, was to put ourselves in a bad position like I did before. I felt lucky to survive that one.”
Johnson’s victory was his fifth of the year for Hendrick Motorsports, which ties him with Keselowski and Denny Hamlin for the most this season.
He has now won two consecutive poles and races in the Chase, first at Martinsville, where he moved past Keselowski in the standings, and now at Texas.
Clint Bowyer finished sixth at Texas and remains in third place in the standings, but he is 36 points in arrears.
He is not officially out of championship contention – only Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., 11th and 12th, respectively, are.
But in reality, it’s down to Johnson and Keselowski, as it has been for the past few weeks.
And both drivers know it.
“It’s my dream to run for a Sprint Cup championship,” Keselowski said. “Certainly I would have liked to have won today, but I feel like we’re fighting the good fight and doing some great things as a team that I’m really, really proud of.
“Obviously, it’s not going to come easy. We’re going to have to win one of the last two races.
“But anything worth doing in life shouldn’t come easy and I appreciate the efforts of the people that I’m around to make it happen.”
Despite his achievements in the Chase, Johnson continues to say he can’t afford to let up. He, like Keselowski, knows that anything can happen and thus is not willing to say a title is in the bag.
Which, incidentally, is certainly the case.
Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, agrees. He knows Keselowski and team will keep up the good fight.
“Oh, yeah they’ve done a good job,” he said. “You have to realize that’s Penske Racing. It’s not like it’s a slouch team. Those guys have been building good cars for a long time.
“I think Paul (Wolfe) is a great crew chief and Brad is a really good driver. So I think they’ll be there through the end.”
“We have a small amount of control, but we’re definitely in control.” Johnson added. “We don’t have to catch up or make up any points. But seven points is nothing to feel comfortable about and to relax on.
“We’re still going to go into Phoenix and act as if we’re behind and go in there to try to sit on the pole and win the race again.”
And so the slugfest continues – and is likely to do so until the final bell.