CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Brad Keselowski held off Kyle Busch on one late restart, and Jimmie Johnson on another. Doing it a third time was just too much to ask during a tense closing sequence at Texas Motor Speedway.
It was Johnson who won that final frantic battle to the finish line, holding steady as Keselowski slammed into the side of his car. Keselowski took it all the way to the edge – refusing, though, to cross a line and wreck the competition – and Johnson never blinked.
The five-time champion nudged ahead, got some separation and pulled away for the win. Johnson now holds a seven-point lead over Keselowski in the standings with two races remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Those three restarts over the closing 19 laps Sunday will go down as some of the most memorable racing of the Chase. It also saved a race that would have been memorable for being largely forgettable up to that point.
It took more than three hours Sunday to get to the good stuff, and it’s clearly not cutting it with fans. ESPN drew a 2.5 overnight rating, down 11 percent from a 2.8 in 2011.
Texas owner Bruton Smith alluded to the issues this weekend, when he said NASCAR needs to work at “making the racing more exciting.”
“I think we can do better and we need to work at it diligently and make what we bring to the public better,” said Smith, who suggested slowing the cars by 10-15 mph to increase rubbing between competitors, and smaller fuel tanks to force more frequent pit stops.
Because, Smith said, races with long green-flag runs that are decided by fuel mileage are “boring, boring, boring.”
And that’s what Sunday was shaping up to be as Johnson, who started from the pole, shot out of the gates and jumped out to a sizeable lead.
He led the first 48 laps, stopped for gas and tires, then led 51 more laps before NASCAR called its first caution of the race, for debris. In fact, of the nine cautions Sunday, five of them were for debris.
And one of them may have set the tone for the finish that had everyone talking Monday.
Keselowski was leading with Johnson in third when NASCAR called caution for debris 58 laps from the scheduled finish and teams in various stages of fuel-mileage strategy. Keselowski went on to pit road as the leader, but locked up his brakes and slid deep into his stall, a miscue that dropped him to eighth when he got back onto the track.
Cautions breed cautions, and there were three more ahead. It set the sequence for Keselowski to take two tires during the final pit stops when everyone else took four tires so he could reclaim the lead, then try to hold off the field over those three final restarts.
After successfully getting past Busch on the first restart, Johnson cried foul and argued Keselowski had gone too early.
“Come on, NASCAR,” Johnson complained over his radio. “Look at the tape.”
Ironically, it was Johnson who many believe went early on the third and final restart, the one that got him past Keselowski for the victory. But NASCAR made no call in either case, reiterating Monday neither case warranted a penalty.
Keselowski was ticked about something after the race, when he radioed to his Penske Racing crew: “Good job everybody. Can’t do anything about it when somebody is handed the race time after time.”
Hard to tell if he meant the debris caution that changed his strategy or the restart that Johnson won, because he was softer in his post-race interviews.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to execute every restart, and Jimmie did a great job on the last one,” he said. “I had to choose between wrecking him and winning the race, and it didn’t seem right to wreck him.”
It wouldn’t have been right, but it sure would have been controversial, and that’s something else Smith had called for more of the day before Sunday’s race. The track owner argued today’s drivers lack the “mean streak” of NASCAR’s blue-collar pioneers, and said interest in the sport would spike with more off-track contact.
“It would add a great deal to what we do, and we would have more drama if maybe some driver got out at the end of the race and hit somebody,” Smith said. “I think that’s what’s missing. We used to have a lot of that.”
That creates post-race fireworks, but doesn’t do anything to fill the dearth of action Texas suffered through for the first 400-plus miles.
NASCAR has two races left in this Chase and heads next to Phoenix, where Johnson is decidedly more experienced than Keselowski. He could pounce on Sunday and potentially turn the Nov. 18 finale at Homestead into a coronation of his sixth championship.
It would be a nightmare situation for NASCAR, which is working feverishly behind the scenes on its 2013 car. The hope is the new model will improve the racing on the intermediate tracks, where passing has become so difficult.
But NASCAR chairman Brian France recognized some time ago there was a problem with the product, and that big finishes and debris cautions and controversial restarts and even post-race fisticuffs can’t eclipse a bad show forever.
We’ll see what the next two weeks bring for this championship race. And then the slate is wiped clean for NASCAR, which gets a fresh start next season at proving the show can be exciting before the grand finale.
• Jenna Fryer covers auto racing for The Associated Press.