FORT WORTH, Texas -- For a few moments -- well, four seconds actually -- it seemed like Jimmie Johnson might let Matt Kenseth back in Sunday's AAA Texas 500. A loose lug nut cost the No. 48 team four precious seconds in the pits with fewer than 100 laps to go and all of a sudden Johnson was out of the top five and right in front of Kenseth on the cool Texas Motor Speedway track.
It was the best view Kenseth would have of Johnson the rest of the race. In an instant, Johnson was gone, weaving through traffic and zooming his way to the front of the field in just 15 laps. After that, Johnson's only destination was Victory Lane, where he fired the guns and claimed the trophy at TMS for the second straight year.
The win also gave Johnson some separation over Kenseth, putting him seven points ahead with two races to go. It was a dominating performance (even with the slow pit stop). Johnson led 255 laps. He stayed focused on keeping his car out of trouble, leaving the rest of the field to try to simply get a respectable finish.
"The 48 was in another class," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second. It was his fifth runner-up of the season and third in the Chase. "Nobody had anything for him."
No, they didn't. What Sunday's race did is end any discussion about whether this was more than a two-driver race for the title. With two races left, only Kenseth and Johnson can get their hands on the trophy. Jeff Gordon's unlikely championship charge ended with a thud early in the race.
Gordon, who entered the race third in points, felt his left tire blow and then a smack as he smashed the wall in Turn 1. The blow was hard enough to send parts tumbling out of his car, bouncing and sliding down the banking much like his hopes for a fifth title. The damage to his right side was bad enough that he drove straight to the garage, bypassing the pits, on Lap 74.
"You just can't have things like this happen if you're going to make a run at a championship or battle with these guys," Gordon said as he watched his crew work to get his car back on the track.
The reality is Gordon's 27-point deficit entering the race was more like a football team hoping to come back from four touchdowns behind in the fourth quarter. That meant winning races and then getting a lot of help from the two most consistent drivers in the Chase. That just wasn't going to happen.
The worst thing for Kenseth is there's no chance that Johnson's going to take his newfound lead in this year's Chase for granted. Neither will his team. As Johnson was quick to point out even before he celebrated with his team, the No. 48 had a seven-point lead after the Texas race last year and lost the championship to Brad Keselowski.
"I hope history doesn't repeat itself," Johnson said.
Seems doubtful, doesn't it? This is simply Johnson's time of year. You can call him Mr. November or Mr. October or just Mr. Chase. But as the temperatures cool and the days shorten, Johnson takes control. Often, it leaves his competitors fighting for runner-up status.
And that's even tougher to attain when you're the one making mistakes. Kenseth made a big one on Sunday, speeding on pit road to garner a pass-through penalty. Pit road speed is 45 mph. NASCAR gives the drivers a 5 mph cushion. Kenseth was clocked at 50.6. Yep, sixth-tenths of a mile per hour was costly.
He went from racing toward the lead to 16th, the final car on the lead lap. It happened just past the halfway point, giving him time enough to recover and finish fourth to avoid falling farther behind.
"If I hadn't messed up, maybe we could have finished second," Kenseth said.
Notice he didn't say first. Kenseth, like everyone else, knew he wasn't catching Johnson on Sunday. Brad Keselowski looked like he might contend, but fell back. Kyle Busch had a fast car, but he grazed the wall early and then was caught speeding on pit road late to end his opportunity. And Junior just couldn't get on a good enough run to challenge Johnson.
It has to leave Kenseth wondering how good his chances are of catching Johnson the next two weeks. Sure, he can point to last year as proof that it's possible. But it seems more likely that last year was merely an aberration. After all, it's the only time that Johnson left Texas with the championship lead and didn't hold on for the title.
"I'm not counting on anything," Johnson said. "I know I've got to go to Phoenix [next week] and race."
Johnson was by far the dominant car on Sunday. The driver and team have found their stride during this Chase and are in position -- again -- for a sixth championship. It shouldn't come as a surprise. This is Johnson's time, after all.