Philadelphia, PA – With eight races now completed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it comes down to a battle between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski for the championship.
Actually, it's more than a battle between Johnson and Keselowski, it's a slugfest. That was pretty evident on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, where the two duked it out for the win late in the race.
After winning Texas in dramatic fashion, Johnson referred to the Chase battle between Keselowski and he as a "bare-knuckle fight" and "the gloves are off."
Johnson's victory allowed him to widen his points lead from two to seven. The Sprint Cup Series will run its penultimate race next Sunday at Phoenix and then conclude the season on Nov. 18 at Homestead.
The championship battle is shaping up to be a repeat of last year's duel between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Stewart trailed Edwards by eight points with three races remaining, but Stewart won at Texas and Homestead to claim the title in a points tiebreaker.
"It reminds me of last year's Chase in some respects," Johnson said.
Either Johnson or Keselowski has led in the point standings since the Chase began on Sept. 16 at Chicagoland. Keselowski's seven-point deficit is his largest since the start of the postseason.
"It's a small amount of control, but we're definitely in control," Johnson said. "We don't have to catch anyone or make up any points. Seven points is nothing to feel comfortable about and to relax on. We're still going to go into Phoenix and act as if we're behind and go in there to try to sit on the pole and win the race again."
Keselowski won at Chicagoland and then scored another Chase victory on Sept. 30 at Dover. But Keselowski has managed to remain very much in title contention after finishing eighth at Kansas and then sixth at Martinsville, a track where he had struggled in the past.
After running behind Johnson for most of the race at Texas, Keselowski gambled with a two-tire strategy during the final round of pit stops with 22 laps to go. Keselowski inherited the lead and then held off Johnson, who took four new tires, in a pair of restarts.
But an accident involving Mark Martin on the front stretch in the closing laps set up a green-white-checkered finish. The third restart was the charm for Johnson, as he passed Keselowski for the lead on the backstretch and then ran in front for remaining one-and-a-half laps.
"I think the restarts made the difference," Keselowski said. "Jimmie probably would have gotten me with an extended amount of laps to go, but with only five or six to go when I had the lead, I felt pretty good about it.
"I felt like restarts are like rock, paper, scissors. Eventually you're going to lose them. It's just a matter of time. There's always time to counteract the strategy. To win two out of three (restarts), I felt lucky to do that. Obviously, I didn't win the last one that counts."
Keselowski crossed the finish line 0.8 seconds behind Johnson.
"I'm confident that we will come back around, and when it does, we'll change these second and fifth (place finishes) or whatever they are over the last few weeks into wins," Keselowski noted. "I feel like that's bound to happen over the next two weeks, and we have the team to pull it off. I also feel like the way the points are right now, we still control our own destiny, which is if we win the race, we get the points lead."
Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne were considered as possible championship contenders before Texas, but Bowyer's sixth-place finish put him 36 points behind, making him a long shot at best. Kahne finished 25th and dropped to 58 points out of the lead, which essentially ended his title hopes.
Johnson has earned the maximum amount of points -- 48 -- in each of the last two races. He has started on the pole, led the most laps and won at both Martinsville and Texas.
"The way things have been going, you have to win the race to get points," he said. "To win the pole, lead the most laps and win the race is a big deal. Just excited and really wish we were in Phoenix right now getting ready to start the next race."
Keselowski recently predicted that the championship will come down to the last lap at Homestead. With the way things are going right now, that looks to be the case.