STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Column by Race Chaser Online Associate Editor Kyle Magda — Sarah Crabill/Getty Images North America photo —
Brad Keselowski dominated Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas, but it wasn’t enough.
His 312 laps led didn’t include leading the final one, and he came home runner-up to eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson.
The two battled for a championship in 2012, with Keselowski prevailing for the first Cup title for legendary team owner Roger Penske, but this time, the roles were altered slightly — Keselowski was fighting for another shot at a title, while Johnson played the ultimate role of spoiler in the Lone Star State.
Johnson’s race-winning pass with four laps to go Sunday sent shock waves to the remaining Chasers in the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The win locked out another Chase driver from advancing to Homestead with a shot at this year’s title, and gives several drivers who were once thought outside shots at best to make it to the Final Four renewed confidence that they can, in fact, secure their chance at fighting for the big trophy on Sunday.
It ensures that there will be a minimum of two points spots that determine which drivers will advance to Homestead in 10 days’ time and fight for the Sprint Cup. That, in itself, is a big variable when you consider that Kevin Harvick — who is currently among the provisional Championship 4 — has won the last four consecutive Cup races at Phoenix and five out of six dating back to November of 2012, and is likely to secure his place at Homestead with yet another win this weekend.
But this past weekend, the story wasn’t about Harvick. Instead, Johnson’s win showcased what seems to be a revitalized Hendrick Motorsports (HMS).
It’s not just about the strength of the six-time champion’s run in the race’s final stretch, but that his teammate — Jeff Gordon — could rest a little easier after the checkers flew in Texas. Because Johnson prevented Keselowski from scoring a round-advancing win, Gordon remains the only driver currently locked into the championship round in less than two weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Add to that the fact that until last Sunday, HMS hadn’t won a race since July at Daytona with Dale Earnhardt Jr., but the organization has now won the last two Cup races.
With Johnson hoisting the six-shooters in Texas’ victory lane, Team Penske has to be befuddled for the events that took place since Kansas last month. Everyone knew payback was coming for Joey Logano after he tapped Matt Kenseth in the closing laps for his second win in the Contender Round, ultimately winning at Talladega to sweep the entire second round of the Chase.
Then the bottom fell out at Martinsville.
Both Keselowski and Logano led a chunk of the race, but neither one emerged victorious. Keselowski’s tie rod got knocked out with contact from Kenseth that started a three-car wreck and collected Kurt Busch, but it was Kenseth who became a man of his word when he pile-drove Logano into the Turn 1 wall to end any shot at the Connecticut young gun moving on to the championship round with a Martinsville win.
Now, just two races are left in the 2015 season to crown a champion. Gordon is safe by virtue of his Martinsville victory in his final start at the Virginia short track, but three spots are still up for grabs. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all escaped Texas with top-10 finishes and currently find themselves in second through fourth in points.
Something that might’ve not been noticed before the final caution of Sunday’s race was Truex chopping Keselowski’s lead down to a second. The 2012 Cup champ said in his post-race interview that “I got flat out beat. The car tightened up on me,” and the No. 2 WURTH Ford was outrun by defending race winner Johnson in the final laps. Since the Chase began in 2004, only one time (2008) has Team Penske had no drivers competing for a championship.
But that chance exists now heading to the final race of the Eliminator Round in Phoenix on Sunday.
Even despite all of the mayhem that has surrounded NASCAR the entire Chase, story lines just continue to unfold.
With the four drivers that are in to date: Gordon is looking to go out on top of the sport, taking a fifth championship into retirement; Kyle Busch is looking to turn a season that started out with a broken leg at Daytona and 11 races missed into the most improbable of title runs; you’ve got Harvick trying to go back-to-back in a format that most pundits believed would never crown the same champion in consecutive seasons; and Truex hopes to give Furniture Row Racing, the team based out of Denver, Colorado, their first-ever title at NASCAR’s top level.
The four Chase drivers on the outside looking in are Carl Edwards (-7), Keselowski (-19), Kurt Busch (-28) and Logano (-63).
They carry their own headlines in the championship clash as well: Edwards continues to look for redemption in the Chase after the title that got away on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart in 2011; Keselowski and Logano are both trying to recover from the longest of odds (and all of the circumstances out of their control) and give Penske a shot at glory in Homestead; and Kurt Busch goes in as almost the forgotten man, looking to ditch the days of darkness in his past once and for all and prove to Gene Haas he is once again the title-capable driver that the Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner signed him to be.
Harvick describes this format as wanting to throw up every week, and as a writer, I feel the same.
It’s all in a good way though.
And now, seven drivers are almost assuredly ready to “throw up” heading into the “Jewel of the Desert,” because none of them are truly safe — and this Chase Grid is still anyone’s for the taking.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.
About the Writer
Kyle Magda is Race Chaser Online’s Associate Editor and a co-host of both Motorsports Madness and the Stock Car Steel/SRI Motorsports Show, airing at 7 p.m. ET on Monday and Thursday nights, respectively, on the Performance Motorsports Network. Magda broke into racing in mid-2001 as the sport’s tide was beginning to change towards the current modern-era formula, but still has an affinity for the history of NASCAR’s earlier days.
The 22-year-old currently studies print journalism at Penn State University and can be found traveling to numerous tracks across the country, covering everything from NASCAR and the ARCA Racing Series to the UNOH All-Stars Circuit of Champions and the Super Cup Stock Car Series.
Email Kyle at: [email protected]
Follow on Twitter: @KyleMagda
Email Race Chaser Online: [email protected]
Follow RCO on Twitter: @RaceChaserNews