Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 AAA Texas 500

Key Moment – During the seventh caution flag of the night, Brad Keselowski took two tires on his pit stop to regain lost track position while Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch took four. That got Kes the lead, for a series of restarts but kept what was likely the fastest car from having the speed to pull away. While Busch faded into the background, that decision would ultimately result in Johnson and Keselowski finishing first and second.

In a Nutshell – Johnson started on the pole and dominated the first 165 laps of the race. Kyle Busch and Keselowski owned the next 161. But when the money was all in the center of the table, it was the two combatants for the 2012 championship who stood toe-to-toe, trading haymakers until Johnson prevailed on the green-white-checkered restart that finished the race.

Dramatic Moment – On a restart with eight laps to go, Keselowski led Johnson through turns 1 and 2, then Johnson took the lead heading into turn 3 before Keselowski drove it deeper to the inside to regain the top spot. As the cars came into turn 4, Keselowski got loose and Johnson cleared him — for a moment. But the No. 48 car got loose on exit, a mistake which opened the door to the inside for Keselowski, who shot back to the inside as the top two drivers in the point standings headed down the frontstretch. The cars made contact and very easily could have reopened the door for half of the other contenders in the Chase to get back into the title hunt. Both drivers kept it straight, and it ultimately led to a fantastic final restart to settle the race.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around The Water Cooler This Week

The final three restarts of the race were captivating, if not controversial. On lap 316, Keselowski brought the field to the green, armed with only two fresh tires yet rolled up to speed rather rapidly. Johnson and Busch both complained about Keselowski getting on the gas too early, about three car lengths before entering the “zone” which left him sitting in another “time zone” for what could have been the rest of the race. That restart lit a fire under Johnson, who went after Keselowski hard on his next opportunity, lap 327. That one ended up with both drivers slamming into each other on the quad-oval, nearly causing a wreck in front of the field. After the contact, though Keselowski still held onto the top spot as the final caution flag flew for Mark Martin‘s spin. On the green-white-checkered restart, held after that ninth and final caution, Johnson went into turn 1 hard, tight to the outside of Keselowski and came out with the lead on the back straight and, eventually the win. Will anything be done about the restart drama/complaining, concerns which extended down to Kyle Busch in third place? Probably not. For every argument Keselowski went early, there’s another that has Johnson beating Kes to the line on the green-white-checkered finish to take control. As the driver of the No. 2 Dodge said himself: “Fair play on both sides.”

Kyle Busch notched his fifth top-five finish of the Chase and fourth in the last five races. Although Busch still wouldn’t be in title contention had he made the Chase, thanks to two finishes of 28th or worse, the No. 18 team is still battling hard and laying the groundwork for another successful season in 2013. More importantly, Busch is displaying the right attitude one year after the fateful incident that nearly derailed his Cup career.

Two drivers were mathematically eliminated from title contention after Texas. Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s disappointment is understandable, after he missed two Chase races. But Kevin Harvick is the other, and that is a surprise. Harvick made a habit last year of not being on the radar at the beginning of races only to show up at the end and log quality finishes. This year, he has qualified better, with an average start of 14.3 but struggled to go anywhere but backwards once the green flag falls. With three races left, just four top-five finishes has the No. 29 team poised for arguably their worst season in nearly a decade. Harvick scored his first top 10 of the 2012 Chase by coming home ninth at Texas, but to say it is too little, too late would be an understatement.

In what might have been a foreshadowing of things to come for Harvick at Texas, a parachutist involved in the pre-race ceremonies was flying in with a Texas state flag dangling from his feet. As he approached his landing, the counterweight that held the flag down bounced off the side of Harvick’s car. Could you have any worse luck? In a rare display of sensibility by NASCAR, at least series officials let the No. 29 crew take the car back to the garage and fix the damage without making them drop to the back of the field for an unapproved adjustment. No word on whether the team left the parachute tied to the back of the car during the race… it just seemed like it.

If any driver had the built in excuse to mail it in for the 2012 Chase, it is Matt Kenseth. Kenseth is a short-timer at Roush, leaving for Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season. Add in the fact that there were important parts falling off of his car at the beginning of the playoffs and he was all but eliminated by the time he came home 35th at Dover; those circumstances would typically scream “Surrender!” for all involved. Instead, he won two of the next three races and notched a fourth-place finish this weekend at Texas. Kenseth is now tied for fifth in the point standings with Jeff Gordon and has a chance to end his Roush Fenway Racing career on a very respectable note.

So did Danica Patrick do wrong by Brad? There was a lot of talk Ms. Patrick, who owned the pit stall in front of the title contender was blocking Keselowski’s exit off pit road during much of Sunday’s race. Certainly, it seemed the major “overshot” mistake at the finish, which cost Keselowski eight spots was little more than driver error from the No. 2 car. But two things to consider here. One, Patrick is driving a car that’s owned by Stewart-Haas Racing, receiving Hendrick chassis and engines which makes her the equivalent to the enemy. Two, it’s not like Patrick has spent the season starring in Disney movies while moonlighting as an altar girl on Sunday mornings. Did it cost Keselowski the win? Absolutely not. But where there’s Smoke, there’s fire… (and Danica).

The Nationwide Series has one of the best championship battles out there with two races left. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is tied atop the list with Elliott Sadler, making their battle a Romney/Obama style toss-up with two races remaining. How shocking these drivers accomplished this drama without the benefit of a playoff system, Cup drivers stealing the top 10 spots every week (making their full-time competition a moot point) and nothing other than good, clean, hard competition. Can you believe it? Series ratings are up this season. Who would have thought…

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

The infield grass at Texas Motor Speedway delivered several devastating blows. First, it bit AJ Allmendinger when he spun off of Turn 4 into the infield on lap 109. As Allmendinger’s No. 51 caught the infield grass, the splitter and everything below the front bumper was forcibly removed from the car. Ten laps later, on the restart from Allmendinger’s caution, Juan Pablo Montoya headed to the infield, simply trying to avoid cars stacking up in front of him and left with a soiled HUGGIES Chevy torn to pieces. Finally, on lap 329, Martin was bounced off of the track coming out of turn 4, running out of room in heavy traffic and lost his splitter to the evil infield grass monster. I don’t know what Texas has in that patch of grass, or how sharp the greenery is underneath but it’s tearing cars to shreds unlike any “infield spin spot” we’ve got on the circuit today.

Marcos Ambrose had a pedestrian run turn putrid when he blew a right front tire going into turn 1. He ended up sliding down the retaining wall on the outside of the track, trailing a shower of sparks with another disappointing race in the books. Since the crew swaps were made at RPM, on the eve of the Chase, Ambrose has scored a surprising six finishes in eight races of 24th or worse. Although the swap seems to have been beneficial to Aric Almirola, it has been a disaster for Ambrose.

In the lap 119 melee that resulted in Montoya going through the infield, Bobby Labonte had his nose pushed in and something important underneath the hood damaged, resulting in quite a bit of smoke and some time behind the wall for the No. 47. Labonte did make it back into the race and was running at the finish but he was 51 laps down, not exactly the way he wanted to follow up a rare top-10 performance.

Kasey Kahne was going at it with Gordon when the two cars got together during the last 100 miles. The result was a cut left rear tire for Kahne, who ended up in the wall and went from a top-five contender to 25th. Hardcore Kahne fans will say Texas ended his title hopes, but we all know better; he was already out of the deal long beforehand.

Denny Hamlin suffered a heartbreaking defeat at Martinsville last weekend when a post fell off ohis master switch to all but end his title Chase. Just to make sure there was no doubt he was done, Hamlin ran a pedestrian 20th at Texas and was last among Chase contenders who didn’t make contact with the wall thanks to a blown tire.

If Gordon didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all in 2012. Fighting for first with Keselowski, around lap 250 the No. 24 car was clearly building speed as the night went on. But a blown tire, leading to an unscheduled pit stop cost Gordon track position; subsequent contact with Kahne nearly totaled the car. Instead of a top-five finish, which Gordon probably deserved, he was scraping and clawing just to come home 14th.

The “Seven Come For Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Ending the race in first and second is certainly fine fortune in and of itself. However, the way Johnson and Keselowski were going at it over the last couple of restarts, they are both very fortunate that they didn’t leave Texas looking up at Clint Bowyer in the point standings.

Kyle Busch reported a vibration under the hood around the midway point of the race on Sunday, but the power plant in Busch’s No. 18 stayed together after it appeared to be developing an issue. He came home in third place.

Kurt Busch had an uneventful run for a change in the No. 78 and joined his brother as the only two non-Chase drivers to finish in the top 10.

Tony Stewart spent the first 260 laps of the AAA Texas 500 flailing around in the high 20s and low teens in the standings. But a pit call that gave Stewart some good track position led to the defending champ coming home with a top-five finish.

Although it wasn’t obvious from the television coverage, Earnhardt Jr. had a solid run. He bounced around in the teens for the first 240 laps of the race before steadily climbing up to just outside of the top 10 and eventually culminating in a seventh-place finish. Not bad for a driver who wasn’t even in the car two weeks ago…

Worth Noting

  • Another win for Jimmie Johnson makes it 208 all-time for Hendrick Motorsports.
  • This is Johnson’s fifth win of the season with 18 top fives and 24 top 10s. Those victories are tied with Keselowski for the most in Cup this season.
  • This weekend was Johnson’s fourth pole of the season and 29th of his career.
  • This is Johnson’s 60th career win in the Cup series, only the eighth driver in the history of the sport to achieve that number.
  • This win marked the 700th victory for Chevrolet in the history of the Cup Series, the most of any manufacturer.
  • Keselowski came home second for the third time this season. It is his eighth top-two performance overall.
  • Kyle Busch’s third-place finish was his eighth top-three performance of 2012. Three of them have occurred in the last five races.
  • Josh Wise was the highest-finishing rookie in 37th place (remember, Patrick is ineligible). He’s on track to win Rookie of the Year despite never completing a single event this season.
  • The top-10 finishers on Sunday drove five Chevys, two Fords, two Toyotas, and a Dodge.
  • Although many people were pointing to Martinsville and Dover as tracks where Johnson was likely to gain significant points on Keselowski, it is Phoenix where their disparity is greatest. Johnson’s average finish at Phoenix is 5.3 while Keselowski’s is 22.2, numbers that make you think the No. 48 has this one in the bag. Kes did finish fifth at Phoenix in February; Johnson was fourth.

In light of Chevy’s 700th win, here is the all-time win list by manufacturer:

Chevy – 700
Ford – 612
Dodge – 217
Plymouth – 190
Pontiac – 155
Oldsmobile – 115
Mercury – 96
Hudson – 79
Buick – 65
Chrysler – 59
Toyota – 49
AMC – 5
Lincoln – 4
Studebaker – 3
Nash (NMC) – 1
Jaguar – 1

What’s the Points

For the second week in a row, Johnson scored “max points.” He led the most laps and won the race, which is good for a total of 48. Although Keselowski finished second, he still lost five precious markers to Johnson and is now seven points behind heading into Phoenix.

Although not officially eliminated, the remainder of the Chasers are just squirrels looking for a nut. Bowyer is 36 points out of the lead and is now the only other driver with a mathematical shot to hold the top spot post-Phoenix. Kahne sits alone in fourth place, a total of 58 markers out of the lead and needs to climb within 46 next Sunday to have a chance come Homestead. Gordon and Kenseth are neck-and-neck for fifth place, 72 points out of the top spot and one point ahead of Hamlin.

Stewart and Martin Truex Jr., fighting hard are tied for eighth place. Greg Biffle, who looked to be poised to make a title run when this Chase thing started, is now the last guy who is going to get an invite to Las Vegas. And even that, at this point is no guarantee with one more DNF giving the edge to Harvick behind him.

As was noted earlier, Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. have been mathematically eliminated from title contention, although we all knew that about four races ago. The best of the rest is Kyle Busch, who is 79 points ahead of Ryan Newman for the 13th position and the title of Mr. Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda.

Overall Rating (from one to six beers, with one being a total snoozer and a six-pack an A+ effort): The race started off looking like it was going to be another intermediate snoozefest, with Johnson totally dominating the first 100 laps and very little action going on at the front of the pack. In the end, the top two drivers in the point standings were trading paint and hanging it all out at 190 mph with the grit and determination of the drivers who used to run this series because they loved it rather than for the big paycheck. Although it wasn’t an instant classic, due to the lack of overall action in the first 300 laps, this one still deserves four quality adult sodas for the final 20 laps alone. Fortunately, we’re done with “D”-shaped cookie-cutters for the year and things are looking like this championship will stay intense all the way to the finish.

Next Up: We’re packing up and heading to the desert southwest for 312 laps on the reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway. Although it won’t be the same since they made the dogleg on the back straight so much easier to navigate than it used to be – causing drivers to take shortcuts through the infield – it should still be an exciting event. Johnson is riding the momentum and looks pretty focused after being roughed up by Keselowski late in the race at Texas. He’s on a mission to take the last four races in a row but Kes doesn’t look like he’s going to go away without a fight. Note the grandstands are already sold out; interested fans can still sit on Rattlesnake Hill (although that really seems like a dumb place to camp out).

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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