Shootout in Texas | November 5, 2012
For the second time this season the NASCAR circus rolled into the lone star state with hopes of a higher calibre of racing that we witnessed back in April that saw a record low of only two cautions and a new record for the highest average speed. Unlike last weeks race at Kansas where the teams were returning to a repaved, and essentially a brand new, track nothing had changed at the Texas Motor Speedway since that last race, so hopes were not the highest for a competitive, hard fought race, something even acknowledged pre race by the owner of TMS.
Friday’s qualifying session saw Chase leader Jimmie Johnson extend his brilliant run of form. From taking pole and the victory last week at Martinsville he once again was the man to beat as he put his car on pole in a time of 28.261 seconds (191.076mph) for the fourth time this season. While his closest rival in The Chase, Brad Keselowski, qualified in 8th place. Although not as high up the pack as he would have hoped for in the context of The Chase, where in the last four races he hasn’t qualified higher then 20th, it was seen as a job well done and to quote the man himself “It may not be a pole, but it feels like a pole to us”. But with the race being an evening race the car that is fastest in the sunlight is not always the car that is the fastest when the sun goes down and the lights come on.
The 48’s dominance is evident right from the green flag as by the time the cars enter turn one Jimmie Johnson is already in the lead and starting to edge away from the chasing pack. Within the next few laps the top 5 of Johnson, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr all settle into single file and settle down to what is going to be a long race. While Johnson eases his lead out to well over a second, Keselowski is struggling in the traffic. TMS is a track where it is well known that the lead car in clean air has a major advantage over cars running in the dirty air of the pack.
I would like to say that there then followed some brilliant racing but I cant! By lap 30 Johnson’s lead over Busch is up to over two seconds and the top five cars (which are still in the same order as they were) are separated by a gap of around five seconds. However ten laps later the cars started coming to pit row for their first round of green flag pit stops, but an unfortunate piece of bad timing meant that second place man Kyle Busch fell down the order. As he was coming down pit row and about to pull left across pit row to his stall Matt Kenseth was leaving his stall right behind Busch’s which meant that Kyle had no choice but to pull in past his stall and reverse back into it costing him valuable time.
When Jimmie Johnson comes to pit row on lap 49 the lead finally changes hands to Ryan Newman who in turn relinquishes the lead a lap later when he comes to pit row. Johnson is able to close up on leader Greg Biffle and two laps after giving up the lead the 48 car is back at the head of the race. Meanwhile the pit stops allowed a couple of tweaks to be made to Keselowski’s car and he is now up to fifth and on a charge. Johnson though is having none of it and as the sun starts to go down he keeps his foot down and twenty laps after retaking the lead his lead is up to a massive four seconds. A further round of green flag pit stops does nothing to dampen Johnson’s speed or lead, that is left to first caution of the day on lap 100 for debris. The leaders all come to pit row to top off their fuel and take new tyres and a gamble by Keselowski and his crew chief Paul Wolf to only take 2 tyres appears to pay off as Keselowski wins the race off pit row to start from the front row. But the question is can his two tyres give him the same traction and speed as everyone else who is on four new tyres and can he at least take the lead for one lap and take a vital championship point.
On the restart the number 2 does exactly what it needs too and gets in front of the rest of the pack and takes the lead and the all important point. But before the chasing cars can make their tyre advantage work a second caution comes out when the 51 of AJ Allmendinger gets loose and slides into the infield badly damaging the front of the car. The leaders all stay out but not for long as on the restart Carl Edwards appears to get bogged down causing Trevor Bayne to get into the back of him and Bobby Labonte to go into the back of Bayne, brining out the caution flags for the third time.
On the restart the 2 and 48 cars are side by side as they go racing into turns one and two giving each other only just enough space so as to avoid hitting each other, before Johnson eventually gets his nose in front and starts to pull away. The 48 once again starts to dominate the race quickly establishing a sizeable lead as second place Keselowski appears to be having some difficulties as he’s getting caught by third place Bowyer. However Keselowski must just have been having a breather as ten laps later Clint Bowyer has gone from only being a few car lengths behind him to being nearly 2 seconds back.
Yet another round of green flag stops gets underway and the pit crew for the 2 car do an outstanding job getting Keselowski back out in a time that is 2.5 seconds faster then Johnson was able to complete his stop. What this means on the track is that Johnson no longer has a comfortable lead and Keselowski, for the first time in the race, is starting to close in on Johnson at a decent rate of knots and twelve laps after the pit stops Johnson’s lead is down to around half a second. A few laps later even that lead is completely wiped out when caution number four comes out for debris in turn one. Kyle Busch is able to have a quick pit stop and will separate the two title contenders at the restart with Johnson still at the head of the pack. Strangely on the restart the 48 isn’t able to pull away and instead gets passed by Busch and then by Keselowski slipping quickly down to third and in danger of going even further down. The 2 and 18 cars then race each other hard and twenty laps later they have built up a two second lead from third place Johnson who is having his worst stint of the race so far.
The gap doesn’t last long as once again debris rears its ugly head and the yellow caution flags come out for the fifth time. This time it is Johnson’s pit crew who pull their fingers out and are able to reverse the earlier deficit and get the 48 car out ahead of the 2. However on further analysis it appears that it wasn’t all down to the pit crews as Keselowoski was slightly blocked into his pit stall by Danica Patrick and wasn’t able to get out as cleanly. But that didn’t deter him and on the restart he is able to get passed Johnson and then Busch for the lead, and becoming Chase points leader on the track by a single point, while the 48 continues to struggle as he slips down to fourth even being passed by team mate Jeff Gordon. If Johnson keeps slipping back then his only chance of limiting his losses could be hoping that Gordon is able to catch and pass Keselowski and steal away some of the points.
That theory blows up though when Gordon gets a puncture and has to make an unscheduled visit to pit row. But lady luck is very slightly shining on Johnson as the sixth caution of the day comes out for yet more debris and not only does it give Johnson’s pit crew a chance to make some changes but Keselowski has an awful stop. He has been having issues all race with being able to bring the car to a halt at pit stops and this time he slides right through his pit stall and has to reverse to get out and in the process loses eight places to slip to ninth. With roughly 50 laps left this race is looking like it is going to come down to who can save the most fuel and make it to the end without running out.
Kyle Busch has recovered from his earlier engine issues and wins the race off pit row and is able to easily maintain his lead at the green flag. Johnson gets told that he might be short on fuel as does Keselowski but neither of them are driving like they are in fuel saving mode. In fact Keselowski is putting in better lap times while ‘saving fuel’ then he was when he was meant to be going as hard as possible, and gets up to fifth with 37 laps to go. 10 more laps later and he moves up to fourth but before he can go any further Marcos Ambrose hits the wall to bring out caution number seven. Keselowski again takes the gamble and takes 2 tyres while the rest of the field takes four and again it gets him out front for the restart.
But this time on the restart it looks like the gamble hasn’t paid off as Kyle Busch is able to go by the number 2 for the lead into turn one but almost immediately the number 2 gets inside Busch and retakes the lead. However Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson aren’t happy about the restart and are complaining to NASCAR that Keselowski accelerated hard before the restart line. But NASCAR makes the right call and says there was no infringement and lets Keselowski maintain his lead. His lead doesn’t last long as Kasey Kahne has contact with team mate Gordon and bursts a tyre sending him into the wall and then down into the infield. Although no caution is immediately thrown there is enough debris on the track to pose as a hazard and so for the eighth time the caution flags come out.
All the leaders stay out and with no worries about fuel levels, with only 9 laps to go it is going to be a no holds barred fight between The Chase’s top two drivers. Sure enough both drivers go all guns blazing into turn one and Keselowski gets very loose but somehow not only avoids taking out Johnson but also keeps the speed up and only loses a few meters to the 48. Before the lap has finished the number 2 has caught the 48 and gone round him for the lead.
With seven laps to go and it looking like Keselowski has the race all sewn up Mark Martin gets tagged by Carl Edwards and goes for a trip into the infield and back up the track, somehow avoiding to collect anyone else. Johnson is not a happy camper over the contact earlier between him and Keselowski and when the cars form up behind the safety car he pulls up next to the number 2 and wags his finger at him. With a green white chequer finish both drivers have to lay it on the line if they want to take the win. As they take the green flag Johnson finally gets the start that he has been unable to get throughout the race and is able to keep pace with Keselowski as they go side by side with each other through turn one neither wanting to give an inch. But Johnson is able to get in front while behind them Kyle Busch is right on the number 2’s rear bumper and eager to spoil the party. But he can’t get passed the number 2 and the number 2 can not reign in Johnson who is able to hang on and take the win and extend his lead in The Chase by seven points.
The race was completely dominated by the top two drivers but how did the rest of The Chase contenders get on. Third place Clint Bowyer finished in 6th place and is now 36 points back. Fourth place Kasey Kahne stays in 4th after finishing 25th and is now 58 points back. Matt Kenseth moves up three places to 5th after a competitive fourth place finish and is 72 points back. Also 72 points behind Johnson is 6th place Jeff Gordon. 7th place Denny Hamlin has dropped two places after a disappointing 20th place finish and is 73 points behind. Tony Stewart climbs two places to 8th (80 points back) after a solid fifth place and in ninth, also 80 points back is Martin Truex Jr who falls two places after a thirteenth place finish. Greg Biffle falls one place to 10th (83 points behind) after finishing in tenth. Kevin Harvick stays in 11th (101 points back) after a 9th place finish and brining up the rear in 12th is Dale Earnhardt Jr who despite a seventh place finish will finish in 12th after missing two races.
So with 2 races left, mathematically there is still a few drivers that can win, but realistically the Champion is either going to be Jimmie Johnson or Brad Keselowski. With the type of racing that they have shown here it is going to be a very interesting and action packed couple of races.