After weeks of often contentious debate about how NASCAR drivers should behave, what's OK and what's not OK on track and this mythical thing called a driver's code, Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson did what Jimmie Johnson does best: raced. Hard and clean.
Brad Keselowski's No. 2 Team Penske Ford dominated the AAA 500 at TMS, but a late-race caution allowed Johnson to get the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet into contention to win. Keselowski led 312 of the 334 laps in the race, but after making multiple attempts to pass, in the end Johnson set up Keselowski beautifully to make the race-winning pass. And he didn't have to bend any sheetmetal or send his rival spinning to do it.
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As the two roared into Turn 1 on Lap 331, Johnson went high, while Keselowski guarded the middle lane. As they exited Turn 2 and hit the backstretch, Johnson dove low on Keselowski and took the lead heading into Turn 3, a lead he would not relinquish in the final four laps.
It was a textbook pass, with both drivers going as hard as they could without any blocking, or crashing or finger-pointing or recriminations. In fact it was eerily similar to the fall 2007 TMS race, where Johnson spent lap after lap running down the leader and finally passing him in the final laps after that leader put up a Titanic -- but clean -- defense. The other driver in 2007? Well, that was a guy named Matt Kenseth.
Even though he's not running for a title this year, Johnson reminded everyone just how good he really is, and why he has six championships and 75 race victories, trailing the late, great Dale Earnhardt by just one in both categories.
Asked if he thought about the fact that Keselowski was still in the Chase and he wasn't, Johnson admitted the thought crossed his mind.
"Maybe when the restart happened I thought about those guys," Johnson said of the Chase drivers. "You get so caught up in the moment and racing with guys. I just like to race guys clean anyway."
And Johnson did just that, as did Keselowski. Both guys raced hard, both guys raced clean.
"I just kept pressure on him," Johnson said of Keselowski. "I could see that he was really tight and that was the first I had seen him that vulnerable all day. I just kept the pressure on him, kept searching for line. He saw me coming on the top and protected it. I just kept trying to put pressure on him hoping for a mistake. He got real loose off of Turn 2 and I had a big run down the backstretch and drove it in really far into Turn 3 hoping to hear clear. Once I did I knew I was home free."
Asked if any of the on-track controversy of the past few weeks entered into his thinking, Johnson insisted it didn't.
"You know, honestly I race people how they race me," Johnson said. "Brad's always raced me clean and hard. He did that again today. We both showed each other that same respect, so... What's gone on between other drivers the last few weeks has no bearing on myself. You really handle your own situation, how people treat you, how respectfully they race you. We just had a good, hard race today."
One of the first to congratulate Johnson -- remotely, that is -- was Kenseth, who tweeted the following:
Johnson wasn't worried about the headlines.
He just wanted to race.
"It was a good old-fashioned race," said the six-time champion, "Just race your guts out. That part was fun. I had a great time with it. Clearly Brad had a lot on the line. Thankful he ran as hard and clean as he did. We just went out there and raced hard."