FORT WORTH, Tex. — Brad Keselowski was right on the money in most of what he said Sunday night, but he was dead wrong about the one thing that might matter most.
Keselowski was right about the nature of the racing in the AAA Texas 500. It was breathtaking. After the next-to-last restart in the AAA Texas 500, Keselowski refused to give up the lead, taking his car and Johnson’s to the very limit of their capabilities.
“I felt lucky to survive that one,” Keselowski said in his post-race press conference.
He was right. As he forced Johnson up into the marbles during an amazing two-lap battle, both cars were perilously close to crashing.
“I really enjoyed this race,” Keselowski said. “I guess some people did, too, in the stands. I heard they were pretty excited.”
He was right. The atmosphere was beyond electric. After a 100-lap “prologue” of green-flag racing dominated by Johnson, the AAA Texas 500 gave us some of the closest, most intense racing we’ve seen of late on an intermediate speedway.
Hardly a soul in the grandstands wasn’t standing for the last few laps, and the same can be said for reporters in the press box. Collectively, we all marveled at the battle on the track, realizing that one miscue on the part of either driver could irrevocably alter the direction of the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
With the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup lead on the line, Johnson finally gained the upper hand on the final restart, won the race and left Texas with a seven-point lead with two races left in the season. Had Keselowski held on to win, he would have gone to Phoenix, the next track on the schedule, with a one-point advantage.
Keselowski made the point that the drivers’ records at Phoenix are relatively meaningless in terms of predicting an outcome next Sunday.
“I feel like Phoenix is a whole different animal,” Keselowski said. “I know you want to bring the stats up where he’s so dominant, but they repaved last year, so it’s not the same track. So I don’t feel like a notebook there is that significant.”
He’s right. Overall, Johnson boasts an average finish at Phoenix of 5.3 to Keselowski’s 22.2. In the two events since Phoenix was repaved, however, Johnson has finished 14th and fourth, with Keselowski running 18th and fifth — a much smaller edge for the five-time champion.
It’s also fair to note that, given Keselowski’s relatively small body of work in the Cup series, his expectation of posting a string of personal bests is realistic. Before this year’s Chase race at Dover, Keselowski had no top 10s at the track. He won.
The same was true at Texas. No top 10s. He finished second on Sunday. And when Keselowski comes to Homestead for the Chase finale, expect him to notch his first top 10 there, too.
“I feel like, the way the points are right now, we still control our own destiny,” Keselowski said.
Right again. Keselowski can lock up his first Cup championship by winning the last two races, provided Johnson doesn’t lead the most laps in both events. But is winning twice Keselowski’s only clear path to the title?
“I don’t expect to run the table,” Keselowski said. “We’ll probably need to [win] one of the next two races…”
That’s where he’s dead wrong. If Keselowski hopes to win the championship, he’d better plan on winning the last two races, because any race he doesn’t win, Johnson probably will.
It hasn’t been lost on Keselowski that Johnson’s last two weekends have been remarkably consistent. Win the pole and win the race. Win the pole and win the race. Of the 88 Chase races that have been run so far, Johnson has won 22, exactly 25 percent, a mind-boggling number.
With the championship on the line halfway through the 2007 Chase, Johnson buried his teammate, Jeff Gordon, with four straight wins followed by a seventh at Homestead. Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team have shown repeatedly that they are capable of doing whatever it takes to win a title.
With that in mind, Keselowski must adopt a win-or-bust mentality in the final two races. That’s the only sure way to counteract the air of inevitability that’s already started to permeate this Chase.