After two races full of controversy and negativity for the NASCAR world, it’s good to report that things returned a lot more to normal at Texas Motor Speedway, for Eliminator Round Race 2 of the 2015 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup. Certainly a Jimmie Johnson victory on a 1.5 mile oval is about the only thing one can be certain about in life besides death and taxes, but the manner of that victory, after a fabulous duel with the dominant Brad Keselowski in the closing stages, was the best possible reminder of what ‘quintessential NASCAR’ is about.
And by dominant, I mean levels of domination Michael Schumacher would’ve been proud of. A staggering 312 of 334 laps were lead by the #2 Penske Racing Ford, trying to come from underneath after getting caught up in a messy wreck last week at Martinsville. It was impressive to watch, consistently beating guys off the restarts and cruising away into unassailable leads, and not since Kevin Harvick back at Dover has one driver taken a race they had to win by the scruff of the neck in such a way.
But not for the first time this year, a driver who desperately needed to win was defeated late on by a driver who didn’t technically need to win. Otherwise, that’s where the similarities end.
Ironically, Keselowski’s team-mate Joey Logano, the man at the white-hot epicentre of all the controversy in the past week, fell into trouble just nine laps into the race with a spectacular tire blowout. Whilst Matt Kenseth fans revelled, it would be the first of a worryingly high amount of tire issues encountered – the likes of Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kenseth’s super-sub Erik Jones and Kevin Harvick would all hit trouble with tire blowouts and punctures, all the more concerning given that this is the tire we will take to Homestead in two weeks to decide a 2015 champion.
Otherwise, the race was a fairly standard, largely uneventful Texas race, until Jones’ issues 25 laps from the end set up a slow-burning but fabulously dramatic run to the flag.
The excellent Martin Truex Jr had enjoyed a strong run all day and was up with Harvick on the final restart. The two drove hard side-by-side for nearly 2 laps, with Keselowski eventually muscling his way up in front. It was a power play from the #2 in a race full of them. But whereas he had enough to hold off the little Chevy that could, when Six-Time’s #48 Chevrolet loomed large in the mirrors, he was facing a whole new proposition.
The two traded lines, speed and laptimes for nearly 15 laps, switching up and down the track like an X-Wing and a TIE Fighter dueling in epic space combat. Keselowski knew the power of dirty air, whereas Johnson knew he had a stronger car and if he could just find enough clean air, a pass was possible. He inched alongside multiple times, never quite doing the job, until finally getting a tremendous run off of Turn 2 with six laps remaining, blasting by Keselowski, and sailing to victory.
Harvick toughed it out to take a valuable third, made all the more impressive by his one-handed driving for most of the race due to a malfunctioning shifter slipping out of gear. Kyle Busch rode home fourth and Carl Edwards took fifth, both bouncing back after the splitters on their cars were confiscated in pre-race inspection, and all three taking valuable points in the question to join Jeff Gordon (P12) in the final four at Homestead. Denny Hamlin finished nine laps down after fuel pressure issues, hurting his own Chase chances, while Jones’ excellent performance in Kenseth’s #20 Toyota deserves a lot of praise, especially coming off of a win in Friday’s Truck Series race and a P6 in the Xfinity Series race yesterday.
Going into the penultimate race of 2015, three drivers are in desperate must-win territory – Kurt Busch, Logano and Keselowski, whereas the rest will all be gunning equally hard for victory to guarentee a shot at glory. Last year at Phoenix we saw Ryan Newman door-slam Kyle Larson out of the way on the final lap to ram-raid his way into the final four, and I expect shenanigans aplenty next week. But for now, let’s enjoy a fairly controversy-free race and a great battle between two of the best in the sport. And unlike last week, this time a non-Chaser impacted on the Chase in the best way possible.
Keselowski had no complaints at the flag, and even went to apologise to Truex – who simply replied ‘that’s racing’.
Quintessential, you might say.