FORT WORTH — What started as a duel between pole winner Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson briefly turned into a battle between Sprint Cup Series points leaders Johnson and Matt Kenseth, but a key mistake by Kenseth changed the complexion of Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Kenseth committed a speeding violation on pit road just past the halfway point of the AAA Texas 500, and Johnson took advantage to race relatively unchallenged to his sixth victory of the year.
Johnson broke a tie atop the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings and will take a seven-point lead into next week’s race at Phoenix International Raceway after Kenseth finished fourth. The season finale will be the following week in Homestead, Fla.
“We had an awesome, awesome race car, and we needed it,” Johnson said. “Matt didn’t have the best day and he finished fourth.
“It’s hard to get points in this championship battle, and we got a couple today.”
Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet finished 4.4 seconds ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was followed by Joey Logano, Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski.
“We gambled a little bit in the late stages of this race short-pitting and getting a lot of track position,” Earnhardt said. “We had a fast enough car to keep it, but the [No.] 48 was in another class and nobody had anything for him.”
Johnson pitted from the lead on lap 171 of the 334-lap event, and Kenseth stopped one lap later after running second. But the No. 20 Toyota was clocked over the pit road speed limit and Kenseth had to serve a pass-through penalty. He got back up to speed in 15th place, and his deficit to Johnson had grown from 3.5 seconds to 27.5 seconds.
Kenseth was 13th on a restart on lap 194 and worked his way up to sixth by lap 228 when a round of green-flag pit stops began. Kenseth and several other top drivers pitted on lap 236, but Johnson stayed out for three more laps.
The three extra laps on new tires nearly allowed Kenseth to catch Johnson and wipe out the effects of his earlier mistake, but Kenseth couldn’t quite get to his bumper. When Johnson exited the pits and got back up to speed, Kenseth closed to within 10 car lengths of him in front of the Denton County sign on the wall between turns 3 and 4.
Johnson was fourth, behind other drivers who pitted before him, and he passed Keselowski for the lead 15 laps later. Johnson led on the final restart with 72 laps remaining, while Kenseth was fourth and didn’t have anything left to improve his position.
“[I] had really good pit stops, and my team did a great job. I didn’t do such a great job,” Kenseth said. “I was a little too aggressive on trying to get what we could on pit road.
“I was a little off [today] — just never could get the balance and get it driving exactly like we hoped.”
Johnson won the AAA Texas 500 for the second consecutive year and the third time overall, tying Edwards for the most wins at TMS with three. It was the 66th win of his career, and he led a race-high 255 laps.
Johnson passed Edwards for the lead before the first caution came out, but Edwards beat him out of the pits thanks to the No. 1 pit stall he selected after winning the pole. The same thing happened after the second and third cautions, resulting in a back-and-forth battle between Edwards’ Ford and Johnson’s Chevy at the front of the field.
Edwards then faded during a long green-flag run, and Kenseth entered the picture as the sun disappeared behind overcast skies and the temperature dropped significantly.
The fourth caution came out on lap 189 when officials spotted oil on the backstretch. Edwards had entered the pits one lap earlier while reporting engine trouble. Blue smoke could be seen coming from his exhaust pipes while crew members checked under the hood, and Edwards retired from the race. He led six times for 38 laps and finished 37th.
“It’s unfortunate because this is the most fun I’ve had in a car in a long time,” Edwards said, adding that his crew thought a broken valve spring ended his day.
Kevin Harvick finished eighth and moved up one spot to third in the standings, 40 points behind Johnson. Jeff Gordon arrived in Fort Worth third in the Chase, but he blew a tire on lap 74 and crashed into the wall in turn 1. Gordon finished 38th and dropped to sixth in the standings, and his deficit grew from 27 to 69 points.
Corpus Christi native Bobby Labonte ran only 144 laps in the No. 47 Toyota before retiring with engine problems.
MATT CRIDER can be reached at 940-566-6906.