It’s an unfamiliar role for Jimmie Johnson but still a productive one.
Already eliminated from title contention this season, Johnson returned to his trademark dominance at Texas Motor Speedway this time in the role as spoiler to the remaining participants in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The six-time series champion led a race-high 191 of 334 laps and survived a pair of two-lap overtimes to win Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, holding off Kevin Harvick at the finish.
It’s Johnson’s fourth career win in the fall race at Texas and twice it’s come on the path to a championship. This year, however, his victory denied any of the eight remaining Chase drivers a chance to lock in a berth in the Nov. 16 championship season finale.
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“We wanted to close out the year by having fun, and winning races helps you do that,” said Johnson, who earned his 70th career win.
“I have to give a lot of credit to our test session in Homestead earlier this week. We went down there and (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) and the guys started making me happy. I guess I’ve been unhappy for a while.”
Johnson was knocked out of title contention in Round 2 of the Chase, in large part to a 40th-place finish at Kansas and a 17th at Charlotte. He led the most laps at Talladega, Ala., but failed to win the race, which he needed to do to advance to Round 3.
Even before Johnson was eliminated from title contention, there were obvious signs of discontent between Johnson and Knaus over their team radio. Johnson had said repeatedly that stemmed from neither being satisfied in their performance this season.
“We’ve always been able to be honest with one another and say tough things. Sure, you might not want to hear it, it might sting a little bit,” Johnson said.
“But it's what has kept us together for all these years and provided the 70 wins and six championships.”
While Johnson was celebrating his fourth win of the season in Victory Lane, two of the remaining title contenders – Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski and their teams – were caught up in a brawl on pit road.
Gordon confronted Keselowski at his car after the race over an incident between the two on the track in the closing laps that knocked Gordon out of contention for the win.
While neither driver actually made contact with the other, members of their teams – and teams with drivers not involved in the incident – broke out into a melee. Both Gordon and Keselowski ended up bloodied in the aftermath.
Keselowski “just bulldozed (Gordon),” Harvick said. “At that point there was just no rules so you just stood on the gas and hoped for the best.
“After the race it all broke loose.”
NASCAR is investigating the incident and officials said they would not tolerate punches being thrown. Any penalties will be announced early this week.
Keselowski finished third, Kyle Busch was fourth and Jamie McMurray was fifth.
Heading into the final race in Round 3 of the Chase, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin are tied with the points lead. Ryan Newman is third and Gordon is fourth. If a Chase eligible driver doesn’t win next weekend at Phoenix, the top four drivers in points will compete for the championship in the season finale.
Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Keselowski and Harvick currently make up the bottom four in points. However, if any of the eight wins at Phoenix, they automatically advance regardless of their points position.
It’s a position Johnson wishes he was still in but from the sidelines he believes the new Chase format is changing the dynamic of the championship.
“When I think back to when I started, we’d point people by, let them go. There was this gentleman agreement on the race track,” Johnson said.
“Everybody told you to study Mark Martin, watch how he lets people go. That hasn’t happened in years. We’ll cut each other’s throat any chance we get. It’s just trending that way.”