By DONNA-BETH WEILENMAN
Jimmy Johnson leads just six laps, letting others run at the front of the AAA Texas 500 in Fort Worth for 330 laps. But those six laps let him play spoiler in the Chase for the Championship when he won the race Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
Only his teammate, Vallejo native Jeff Gordon, has guaranteed himself a slot in the season-ending race in Homestead-Miami Florida. He did that last week winning at Martinsville, Virginia.
Most years, Johnson’s win would mean he’d give Gordon a run for the championship. After all, the El Cajon native has been champion six times. But Johnson was eliminated for that opportunity earlier this year in the NASCAR version of playoffs. He still gets to race – in stock car racing, championship contenders still face a full field of 43 in each race.
Brad Keselowski hoped he’d join Gordon with a win in the Elimination round. He led 312 laps, dominating everyone but Johnson. However, he had to settle for second, “just one step short of having the awesome day.”
Johnson noticed Keselowski’s car was tight in the final laps, and stepped up his pursuit. “I just kept pressure on him,” Johnson said. “In today’s race, I felt like the No. 2 car (Keselowski) had the field covered. Whatever went on with the adjustments in that last pit stop, the track getting shade on it, cooling down, really helped my car and it hurt his car.”
But it was a bittersweet victory, Johnson admitted. “Wished we were in the Chase, still fighting for the championship,” Johnson said. “But getting a win here does a lot for everybody at Hendrick Motorsports (his team owner).” Also good news for Hendrick is Gordon’s continuing in the playoffs.
Another Californian, Bakersfield native Kevin Harvick, managed a third-place finish despite having two punctured tires during the race. Kyle Busch was fourth. His year started with a serious crash the eve of the Daytona 500 that knocked him out of the first 11 races. He overcame that deficit with wins and points accumulation to qualify for the Chase.
Busch said Harvick is the driver to beat next week in Phoenix, Arizona. “I do not think it’s a winnable race until Kevin Harvick gets beat. He’s shown that he’s certainly got the stranglehold on the Phoenix racetrack.”
Busch’s teammate, Carl Edwards, was fifth, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle’s brother Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Gordon and Jamie McMurray. Like Johnson, Earnhardt and McMurray are out of the Chase race.
Another Chase candidate, Joey Logano, finished 40th and 66 laps down after he blew a left rear tire on Lap 10 that sent him spinning. He ended up in the garage for extensive repairs before returning to the track.
That finish just made him more determined to win next week. “We will be ready for Phoenix. This team is strong,” Logano said.
Of the other California drivers, A.J. Allmendinger of Los Gatos was 17th, Bakersfield native Casey Mears was 26th, Alpine’s Cole Whitt was 27th, Riverside’s David Gilliland was 29th and Grass Valley’s Matt DiBenedetto was 35th.
The Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 will be broadcast at 11:30 a.m. Pacific time Sunday on NBC. That race will decide the four finalists who will compete for the 2015 Sprint Cup championship in the Ford Ecoboost 400 Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.