Something is beginning to look familiar about this NASCAR championship chase.
One season ago, Jimmie Johnson was engaged in a dogfight atop the Sprint Cup Series point standings and emerged from Texas with a seven-point lead over rival Brad Keselowski after a commanding 168 laps-led performance. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has a different adversary this year, but the results from a Sunday shootout in Texas were the same. In fact, they were even more impressive.
Johnson pulverized the field in the AAA Texas 500, leading 255 of 334 laps to snag his sixth win of the season and second of the Chase. In the process, the five-time champion leaves with an all-to-familiar seven-point advantage over his closest competitor, Matt Kenseth, who finished fourth.
Of course, last season Johnson lost his points lead the following week in Phoenix when a tire failed and he hit the wall. The ensuing 32nd-place finish found him 20 points behind Keselowski, a deficit he was not able to overcome.
“I hope history doesn’t repeat itself,” Johnson said.
Honestly, it’s hard to imagine that happening twice to a team as prepared — and successful — as the No. 48.
“We really focus on what it is we need to do,” crew chief Chad Knaus explained. “We can all say that Phoenix was the culprit last year why we didn’t win the championship. The fact of the matter is we had a mechanical problem at Homestead that took us out of it. If we had won Phoenix and went to Homestead and still had a mechanical problem, we’d have lost the championship.”
Regardless of whether history does or does not repeat itself, Johnson’s performance put the sport on high alert. Even a slow pit stop on lap 238 that dropped Johnson from the lead to fourth couldn’t derail his efforts. Within 20 laps he had driven back to the point.
Concurrently, a pit road mistake by Kenseth seriously hindered his cause. Penalized for speed entering the pits on lap 173, Kenseth dropped from second to 16th and spent the remainder of the race making up ground.
“I sped trying to be aggressive, which was all on me,” Kenseth said. “Still came back and got a top 5. The day could have been a lot worse. It was a good day for us, really.
“If I hadn’t messed up, maybe we could have finished second.”
Second; not first. That’s how clear it was that Johnson was in another zip code.
Runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. and third-place Joey Logano said as much afterward.
“We had a fast enough car to keep track position, but the 48 was in another class and nobody had anything for him,” Earnhardt said.
“We can’t be disappointed with a third-place finish,” Logano said. “Just the 48 car was ridiculously fast.”
However, oftentimes in racing, the fastest car does not win. And that fact was not lost on Johnson:
“When you have a dominant car, it is so stressful because you’re just waiting for that thing that can get you, whatever it is. Chad said it once on the radio, ‘Just keep a positive mindset here, and things are going to work out.’ We did that. We stayed focused and got the job done.”
Even with last season’s championship defeat still fresh, don’t expect Johnson to consider this a knockout blow to a veteran such as Kenseth.
“At this point of the season if you’re in contention, you’ve got more pressure than you ever wanted — it’s just there,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if this puts any more (on Kenseth). They were able to get some points on us last week. We got some on them this week.”
And Kenseth, for his part, left with an optimistic outlook at the season’s final two events:
“The math works out if you win the last two races, so it’s still in our hands. It’s not like we have to have somebody have trouble. If we can go out there and outrun everybody for two weeks, we’ll just go with that mindset.
“We’re still in this thing after eight weeks and we’re going to try to get it.”
One more Texas-like performance out of Johnson and that math changes.