Jimmie Johnson’s dominating victory in the AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway enabled him to break a tie with Matt Kenseth, who finished fourth, at No.1 in the point standings.
Johnson now leads by seven points with two races remaining in the Chase.
Time for the fat lady to sing, you might say.
Johnson has been here before. In 2012, he was ahead by seven points with two races remaining. But he lost the championship to Brad Keselowski.
Actually, Johnson finished in third place, one point behind runnerup Clint Bowyer – who does not figure in this year’s championship – and 40 behind Keselowski.
Johnson essentially fell apart over the final 2012 races, opening the door for Keselowski. Johnson finished 32nd at Phoenix and 36th at Homestead.
Keselowski was sixth at Phoenix and clinched to title with a 15th-place run at Homestead.
So Johnson will quickly tell you that a championship is by no means a certainty. He likes the position he’s in but it guarantees nothing.“We learn lessons each and every year,” Johnson said. “I know when I go to Phoenix the balance of the car I felt last year led to a blown right front tire.
“So we’ll show up there and make sure that from my standpoint and what I feel with tire pressures and temps and the overall balance of the car that we don’t overwork that right front tire.
“I feel better about Phoenix, honestly, than I did last year leaving here. Last year was good example of us taking control late in the Chase and then that ended with two bad races.
“I guess the lesson in all of that is I’m not counting on anything, and I have to go to Phoenix and race, same as Homestead.”
At Texas Johnson led 255 of 334 laps and went on to win by more than four seconds over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
As impressive as Johnson’s performance was, it wasn’t the most dominant at the 1.5-mile speedway. Tony Stewart led 278 laps en route to a victory in November 2006, a season in which he failed to make the Chase.
Johnson’s Hendrick Motorports team wasn’t flawless. It had a slow pit stop under green and he dropped to fourth when the cycle was completed.
But on the last cycle of green-flag stops the team was perfect. Johnson retained his lead and had a sizable margin over Earnhardt Jr.
Kenseth, in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, also had pit road problems. During green flag stops on lap 173, NASCAR penalized him for speeding on pit road.
He was running second at the time and, after a run-through on pit road, fell to 16th, the last car on the lead lap. However, he rallied to a fourth-place finish when it could have been far worse.
Johnson and Kenseth are, realistically, the only drivers with a chance at the championship and they will be the focus of attention during next two weeks.
Kevin Harvick, now third in points, is 40 in arrears and is the only other driver with a mathematical shot at the title.
Jeff Gordon was third coming into Texas and was 27 points down. Gordon was in the Chase after NASCAR CEO decreed he would be the 13th driver entered after Michael Waltrip Racing’s shenanigans at Richmond
At Texas Gordon was a realistic challenger for the championship.
That changed quickly. Gordon had a tire go down and he hit the wall on lap 74. After repairs in the garage he wound up in 38th place. He fell to sixth in the standings, 69 points down, and has no chance to win a fifth career title.
“I knew I was going to hit the wall,” Gordon said. “It is so unfortunate. This No. 24 team has done such an amazing job. I am so proud of them to get us where we are.
“You just can’t have things like this happen if you are going to make a run at a championship or battle with those guys. We had a great race car. We just didn’t take off good on the restarts, but once we got going by eight to 10 laps into it, boy were we really strong.”
Earnhardt Jr. scored his fifth runnerup finish of the season. Three of them have come during the Chase.
He still hasn’t won this season, but the fact is if he had not suffered a blown engine in Chicagoland, he would likely be in the thick of the championship fight.
“Yeah, I mean, the Chicago deal is regrettable,” said Earnhardt Jr., who is fifth in points, 62 in arrears. “We’d love to go back and do that over again, but as soon as that happened, we really changed our approach and it was more about trying to win a race, winning a race would really lift all the teams spirits.
“You work all season long not to go winless and getting to victory lane. So I know how much the guys want the win. So that’s what we’re working for now.”
Johnson and Kenseth, who have been the Chase leaders over the last two months would also welcome a victory. But they have a bigger goal in mind.
And it won’t be easy to achieve.
“At this point of the season if you’re in contention, you’ve got more pressure than you ever wanted on you. It’s just there,” Johnson said. “So I don’t know if this win puts any more on me.
“They were able to get some points on us last week. We got some on them this week, so I’m not sure.”
What it certain is that it’s not time for the fat lady to sing – for either Johnson or Kenseth.