FORT WORTH, Texas – Nobody can say Jimmie Johnson backed into the NASCAR Nextel Cup points lead.
The reigning champion could have played it conservative and settled for second place in Sunday's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. He still would have grabbed the series lead away from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.
Instead, Johnson's competitive nature got the better of him, pushing the big-picture reality into the background as he won a dramatic side-by-side duel with Matt Kenseth, earning his third straight victory.
The race with Kenseth was breathtaking at times, with both cars wiggling dangerously as they came off the corners nearly touching.
"That was tough racing," Johnson said. "Matt was crowding me and I was trying to move him up a little bit and we were doing all that at 190 miles an hour. It was pretty intense."
The entire time Johnson, who came into the race nine points behind Gordon in the Chase for the championship, was well aware a crash would have taken him right out of the title battle.
"I feel like I was doing a good job balancing those emotions in the car," he said. "When I got inside of Matt and tried for a lap or two to get by him and he was crowding me, I actually backed off and let him go. So I just checked those feelings and regrouped and then went back after him.
"But, after seeing the video when I was doing the Victory Lane interview, I was more sideways than I felt like I was," Johnson added, laughing. "I think I was too focused on the prize and I was pretty crossed up a couple of times."
Even team owner Rick Hendrick, who already has six championship rings, was unnerved by the close racing.
"We've got an awful lot at stake here," Hendrick said. "You know Jeff was running seventh and I thought, `We don't need to do this.' But I felt like Jimmie was under control. I was nervous and I was wanting to hit the (radio) button, but I didn't."
The victory moved Johnson out to a 30-point lead with only two races remaining in the Chase.
Gordon, a four-time champion, led early in the race, but was no factor in the late going, struggling with handling before managing to squeeze out a hard-earned seventh-place finish that kept the points battle close heading to Phoenix next week.
"Thirty isn't much," Gordon said of his deficit. "The biggest thing right now is that we're just getting beat and those guys are winning races. We've got to go put some pressure back on them and outperform them.
"Phoenix is a good track for us," added Gordon, who won on the one-mile oval in the spring. "We'll go there and fight hard, just like we did tonight. Hopefully, we can get those points back."
Johnson, who took the points lead for good at Texas last year on the way to his first and only title, said, "I do know we're racing for the championship and now we have control of it, I guess."
Kenseth was one of four drivers who moved to the front on the final pit stops by the leaders on lap 301, taking only two tires. Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, decided to change all four on the No. 48 Chevrolet and his driver came out fifth for the restart on lap 306 of the 334-lap race.
"I felt like four tires would be better than two with that many laps left, but I also knew that we needed to be the first car that changed four tires to get out of the pits," Knaus said. "The guys did a great job getting us out there where we needed to be."
Kenseth, whose only win in 2007 came at California in the second race of the season, took the lead from Ryan Newman on the restart. It took Johnson until lap 313 to get to second and he then began closing quickly on Kenseth's No. 17 Ford.
Once Johnson caught him, the two battled lap after lap, bumping at least once.
"We raced a long time, but he was probably pretty confident I wasn't going to wreck him," said Kenseth, who also finished second in Texas in April when he was passed on the last lap by Jeff Burton. "I didn't get him much extra room at all.
"I felt like I was sideway the whole time. One time, (I) just about spun out. That would have been bad. I'm glad I was able to gather that up and keep going."
They crossed the finish line exactly even — the electronic timing showing the gap as 0.000 seconds — on lap 328 and lap 332 as Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, tried desperately to hold off Johnson.
But the determined Johnson, who was shown as the leader on lap 332, finally got some space on Kenseth with two laps to go and raced away to his nine victory of the season, winning by 0.944 seconds — about 10 car-lengths.
It was Johnson's 32nd career victory and first on the 1.5-mile Texas oval. He led four times Sunday for a total of nine laps.
A disappointed Kenseth said, "He ran me down from a long way back. I don't know how fast he was, but I was steadily losing grip. Four tires is just too much."
Third-place Clint Bowyer, the surprise of the Chase, saw his chances for a championship all but end when he had to make two green-flag stops because of a tire vibration, losing two laps and finishing 19th. That left him 181 points behind Johnson.
The results also mathematically eliminated six of the 12 drivers in the Chase, including 10th-place Kenseth. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and two-time champion Tony Stewart remain alive in the Chase — barely.
Busch is 339 points behind Johnson, with Edwards 357 back and Stewart 373 behind.
Pole-winner Martin Truex Jr. finished third, followed by Busch, who led a race-high 143 laps but fell from first to seventh on the final pit stop. Newman finished fifth and Burton held off Gordon for sixth.