FORT WORTH — A wild race at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday led to a brawl on pit road and a wide-open event next week that will determine the four drivers who will race for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship at Homestead.
Jimmie Johnson was racing side by side with Brad Keselowski on a double-overtime restart when Kevin Harvick applied pressure to the back of Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford and made him lose momentum. Johnson, who was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff two weeks ago, pulled away in his No. 48 Chevrolet and won the AAA Texas 500 for the third consecutive year.
“We wanted to close out the year by having fun, and winning races helps you do that,” Johnson said.
Harvick finished second and Keselowski third. Those were the two Chase drivers who were in the most trouble after poor finishes last week at Martinsville. They’re still at the back of the Chase standings, but now they head to Phoenix International Raceway with Keselowski just 17 points behind co-leaders Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, and Harvick one point behind Keselowski.
On the first overtime restart, leader Jeff Gordon chose the outside lane with Johnson on the inside. Gordon drifted high on the way to Turn 1, and Keselowski eagerly filled the gap between the two Chevys. Gordon drove back down and made contact with Keselowski, with the end result being a flat tire for Gordon. Gordon spun to bring out a TMS-record 13th caution flag.
Gordon, the Chase leader entering the weekend, finished 29th and pulled up beside Keselowski on pit road. The two drivers exited their cars and had crew members keeping them separated. Harvick came up behind Keselowski and pushed him toward Gordon. Gordon was able to get a hand on Keselowski, and at that point a mass of crew members from several teams took part in a brawl that left the two rivals with bloody faces.
“I’m here to win races for Roger Penske and for my team, and that means when there’s a gap I have to take it,” Keselowski said. “If it requires a tiny bit of rubbing, that’s OK. And it’s not anything I don’t expect on the other side.
“There was a gap. It closed up. By the time it closed up, I was committed. I stayed on [the gas], and that almost won me the race.”
Gordon had a different take.
“To [NASCAR], I’m sure it’s just a racing incident, but to me it’s just a bunch of crap,” Gordon said. “You’re racing for a win and a championship — you don’t go slam somebody and cut their left-rear tire. So, you know, that’s what it takes, then no problem, I can do the same thing back to him.”
As heated as their exchange was on pit road, it took a third party to spark the fisticuffs.
“I just told Brad he needed to get in there and fight his own fight if he’s going to drive like that,” Harvick said. “He’s just racing as hard as he can for his team and he’s trying to get all he can. … I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it as long as you’re ready to roll.”
Keselowski said he couldn’t tell what was happening in the “melee of people.”
“I came here to race, not fight. If I wanted to be a fighter, I would have joined the UFC or I’d have a [fighting] management team like [Harvick] does,” Keselowski said. “The only thing I wouldn’t be proud of is if I went and started fights or jumped in fights.”
Despite his misfortune, Gordon still sits in a coveted top-four Chase position. He’s 12 points behind the leaders and 10 points behind Ryan Newman. Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards are one point behind Gordon, with Keselowski and Harvick rounding out the eight-driver field.
Since non-Chase drivers have won the first two races of this third, three-week playoff round, all four championship berths are still available as the series heads to Avondale, Arizona, for the year’s penultimate race. A win by a Chase driver at PIR would secure one spot in the final four; otherwise, the four drivers highest in points will be the ones extending their title quests to Homestead.
Kyle Busch finished fourth Sunday and Jamie McMurray was fifth. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Edwards and Hamlin completed the top 10.
Newman finished 15th and Kenseth 25th after the two made contact on a restart with 17 laps to go. They both had to pit for repairs and restarted outside the top 20.
Logano, with five wins this season, wound up the points leader despite a disastrous sequence late in the race. He was running fourth when the eighth caution came out. Some dropped lug nuts caused a lengthy stop that relegated him to 23rd place. Logano then had a flat tire and spun one lap after the restart, bringing out another caution with 30 laps to go. He rallied to finish 12th.
Johnson’s fourth victory in Fort Worth breaks a tie with Edwards for the most at TMS. It was his fourth win of the year and the 70th of his career.
Johnson started third and led nine times for a race-high 191 laps. He wasn’t surprised by the drama at the end.
“When I think back to when I started, we’d point people by, let them go,” Johnson said. “There was this gentleman agreement on the racetrack. Everybody told you to study Mark Martin — watch how he lets people go and works with people. That stuff hasn’t happened in years. I mean, we’ll cut each other’s throat any chance we get.”
Officials announced Sunday morning that AAA Texas has extended its sponsorship agreement for the race through 2017. … The Harlem Globetrotters gave the command to start engines, and Ranger pitcher Derek Holland drove the pace car before the green flag.
MATT CRIDER can be reached at 940-566-6906.