Jimmie Johnson might not be in the Chase anymore, but he made his presence felt Sunday in NASCAR’s postseason.
Snatching a victory from Chase-driver Brad Keselowski with three laps remaining, Johnson won Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Johnson’s victory was his third straight at Texas and the 75th of his career, one short of Dale Earnhardt’s seventh-place spot on NASCAR’s all-time list. Johnson, a six-time champion, has long been eliminated from the Chase, going out of the first round when a rear-axle seal broke on his No. 48 Chevy at Dover (Del).
Sunday’s outcome added another level of intrigue to what’s already been an eventful Chase. With Sunday’s race going to non-Chaser Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon remains the only driver who has clinched a spot in the championship round Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
That means there are still three spots available for Homestead with one race left among seven drivers – each of whom will want to win next week at Phoenix to claim an automatic berth.
That includes Kevin Harvick, who finished third, as well as Kyle Busch (fourth) and Carl Edwards (fifth).
Also included is Keselowski, who started on the pole and was dominant for much of the day, leading 312 laps of 334 laps. But instead of winning and advancing to the final, Keselowski remains mired in sixth place.
“Just one step short of having the awesome day we needed to have,” Keselowski said. “But we know if we keep running like we have the last two weeks, we’ll win races. We need to win the next two. I understand that.”
Keselowski appeared to have the race – and a cherished spot at Homestead – in hand until a caution for debris on the track came on Lap 310. That was the break Johnson needed. After the restart, Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy stayed close to Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford until Lap 330.
Johnson passed Keselowski on the backstretch and cruised from there. For, Johnson, the victory was another reason to feel optimistic about the 2016 season. For, Keselowski, it was a missed opportunity.
“I’m not happy that I kept somebody from advancing, but that wasn’t in my mind at the time,” Johnson said. “It was just a good, old-fashioned race, where you race your guts out. Clearly Brad a lot on the line, but I’m grateful he raced me as cleanly as he did.”
Kyle Busch had a clear view of Johnson’s victory and wasn’t disappointed.
“There’s no denying that (we) were cheering for the 48 because that helps our situation,” said Busch, who is second behind Gordon in the standings. “It makes those guys who are in dire need of a win now really have to work hard for it. It was unfortunate for Brad, though.”
It also probably helped Harvick, who survived two flat tires and a broken gear shifter (he spent much of the race with his left hand on the steering wheel and his right hand holding the shifter in place to prevent the car from jumping out of gear).
Harvick is third in the standings and has always excelled at Phoenix, the final stop before Homestead. He’s won seven times there and four in a row, including a must-win race in the 2014 Chase.
Harvick’s situation isn’t as desperate this season, but he feels comfortable heading to the desert.
“We are in good shape,” Harvick said. “We are still in it. We will have to go to Phoenix and run hard and put together a really good run.”