FORT WORTH — Brad Keselowski arrived at Texas Motor Speedway likely needing a win to advance to the championship round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. For the second consecutive year, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson already was eliminated from NASCAR’s playoff.
Keselowski dominated Sunday, leading a track-record 312 laps in the No. 2 Ford. But Johnson caught Keselowski after the final restart, passed him for the lead with just more than three laps remaining and pulled away to win the AAA Texas 500 for the fourth consecutive year.
“[Johnson] had so much speed the last 10 laps,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know what I would have done differently or could have done differently.”
The final caution flag came out for debris on Lap 311 of the 334-lap race. On the restart, Keselowski battled side by side with Martin Truex Jr. for two laps before pulling back in front. Keselowski seemed poised to cruise to a comfortable advantage like he had all day, but Johnson soon appeared on his bumper and stalked him for the lead.
Keselowski held Johnson off for 10 laps, but Johnson had found a new burst of speed in the No. 48 Chevrolet and passed Keselowski in Turn 4 of the 1 1/2-mile track. Johnson beat Keselowski by 1.1 seconds and led six laps.
“I felt like the 2 car had the field covered,” Johnson said. “Whatever went on with the adjustments on that last pit stop — and the track getting shade on it and cooling down — really helped my car and it hurt his car.
“If he didn’t get really loose off of Turn 2 … if he didn’t lose that drive and momentum there, I’m not sure I could’ve gotten by him.”
After crashing with Matt Kenseth last week at Martinsville, Keselowski was in a big hole in the Chase standings.
Fort Worth hosts the second race in the three-event third round of the playoff, and only Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway remains before the championship finale at Homestead.
Winning a race guarantees a Chase driver a spot in the next round, with the remaining berths determined by points. Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville to advance to Homestead, and seven drivers are competing for the three remaining spots.
Keselowski is in sixth place in the Chase, 19 points behind fourth-place Truex. Kurt Busch is 28 points behind Truex, and Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano is 63 points behind the cutoff line.
“We know we need to win the next two [races] to win the championship,” Keselowski said. “The good news is we have that opportunity.”
Logano, after being intentionally wrecked by Kenseth while leading at Martinsville, had another disastrous finish. Logano’s left rear tire went flat on Lap 10, causing him to spin and damaging his Team Penske Ford.
Logano had to go to the garage for repairs and lost 66 laps. He finished 40th and can advance only by winning next week.
Chase leader Gordon is two points ahead of Kyle Busch, three ahead of Kevin Harvick, six clear of Truex and 13 ahead of Carl Edwards.
Harvick narrowly escaped a fate similar to Logano’s when he had a left rear tire problem on Lap 36. He slowed on the frontstretch, and the yellow flag waved for debris. Harvick pitted for new tires without losing a lap, restarted in 39th place and drove back into the top 10 by Lap 60.
Harvick’s right rear tire went flat while he was running second on Lap 281, but the green-flag pit cycle worked in his favor and he finished third.
Kyle Busch finished fourth, followed in the top 10 by Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Truex, Gordon and Jamie McMurray.
Erik Jones, the Camping World Truck Series points leader, drove Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota on Sunday after NASCAR suspended Kenseth for two races. Jones finished 12th and ran in the top 15 almost the entire race. He had a tire problem on Lap 310, when officials threw the final caution flag.
In further trouble for Gibbs, the front splitters were confiscated from the cars of Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch before the race. The team had to install new splitters, but the trio kept their starting positions.
Johnson now has six wins at TMS. He won the Duck Commander 500 in April and the fall race in 2007. He became the first driver to win three consecutive Sprint Cup races in Denton County. His fifth victory of the season is the 75th of his career, putting him one behind the late Dale Earnhardt for seventh place on the all-time list.
“Happy I beat the dominant car,” Johnson said. “It was just a good, old-fashioned race. I mean, just race your guts out. That part was fun, so I had a great time with it. Clearly, Brad had a lot on the line. [I’m] thankful that he raced as hard and clean as he did.”
Corpus Christi native Terry Labonte, a two-time Sprint Cup champion who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this winter, drove the pace car before the green flag. … Former North Texas football player and wrestling superstar Steve Austin gave the driver introductions. … HScott Motorsports shock specialist Marcos Castro, a former Ryan tennis player, had to wear a backup firesuit after the hauler for Michael Annett’s No. 46 Chevrolet burned before reaching Fort Worth.
MATT CRIDER can be reached at 940-566-6906.