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Desperate Brad Keselowski falls short to Jimmie Johnson in return to normalcy

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Sorry, NASCAR fans. The race at Texas Motor Speedway featured no pit-road brawl this year.

And since we're issuing apologies, sorry for no significant contact in racing for the win. And sorry for no controversy of drivers manipulating the Chase nor making moves that one had to wonder whether were intentional or unintentional.

This race had all the things fans love to hate: a dominant driver and tire issues. The only thing missing that would sour more fans was fuel mileage.

In one of the most vanilla races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it should be no surprise that the driver many fans consider the most vanilla -- six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson -- emerged as the winner.

The race wasn't totally void of drama and disappointment, as Brad Keselowski had one of the most ultimate of second-is-first-loser moments. Keselowski just possibly had his best chance to have a shot at the 2015 Sprint Cup championship slip through his fingers. And yet even he didn't leave distraught.

The Team Penske driver led 312 of the 334 laps but could only watch as Johnson passed him with four laps remaining. Johnson didn't have to nudge Keselowski like Joey Logano nudged Matt Kenseth a few weeks ago at Kansas, a move that triggered the last three weeks of driver retaliation and claims of unethical moves by drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup elimination format.

"It was pretty clear before and remains clear that you can race hard for a win, make contact that's reasonable, kind of prudent for the situation," Keselowski said. "I don't feel like that's changed."

Keselowski didn't seem as disappointed as one might expect, considering what he had on the line at Texas. Because he was involved in a wreck a week earlier at Martinsville, he faced a nearly must-win situation at either Texas or next week at Phoenix to earn one of the four bids to vie for the championship in two weeks at Homestead.

Instead of winning, Keselowski now sits 19 points away from the current cutoff after a second-place finish. The series is heading to a track where Kevin Harvick has won four consecutive races.

"I'm not sure exactly how to feel about it at the moment," Keselowski said. "The 48 car [of Johnson] had so much speed them last 10 laps. Maybe I'll change my mind [but] I don't know what I would have done differently or could have done differently.

"There's always something you can do better. But not knowing what that might be at this moment makes it a little bit easier to digest."

Keselowski had a little door-to-door contact with Martin Truex Jr. battling for the lead with 17 laps remaining. Truex fell to eighth but attributed that to a loose right-front wheel rather than any contact with Keselowski. After the race, Keselowski walked straight to Truex and they shared a laugh and a handshake.

"We just got together a little bit on the front straightaway," Truex said. "I don't know if I came down or he came up. He said he thought he came up. I said, 'It's all good. It's hard racing.' It's racing for the win there."

Johnson said he had no thoughts of turning Keselowski or racing him rougher than usual -- or any tamer than usual. Prior to the race, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell told drivers he expected them to race hard, just not go beyond the line that Kenseth did at Martinsville.

"I race people how they race me," Johnson said. "Brad's always raced me clean and hard and he did that again today, and we both showed each other that same respect.

"What's gone on between other drivers the last few weeks has no bearing on myself. You really handle your own situation in how people treat you, how respectfully they race you. We just had a good, hard race today."

The win meant nothing for Johnson except for a trophy -- a third consecutive one at Texas -- and bringing him to 75 for his career, just one short of Dale Earnhardt.

But the focus of the race was on the guys in the Chase, and Johnson was eliminated in the first round. Jeff Gordon remains the only driver locked into one of the four championship spots, with Kyle Busch (fourth at Texas) having an 11-point cushion on the current fifth-place driver Carl Edwards (fifth at Texas). Harvick (third at Texas) has a 10-point edge and Truex (eighth) has a seven-point edge. Kurt Busch (seventh at Texas, 28 points behind) and Logano (40th, 63 points behind) join Keselowski in must-win positions.

Because a Keselowski win likely would have meant a much tighter battle for the final spot or spots by points, Kyle Busch admitted he was cheering for Johnson to be a spoiler.

"It makes those guys that are in dire need of a win to have to work hard for it," Busch said. "Sometimes you can't put yourself in that situation. It may or may not have been [Keselowski's] own doing last week [with the crash] at Martinsville.

"It's unfortunate for Brad. I've been in that situation before, maybe never to that magnitude of losing a race quite like that. I've lost plenty of them that way for sure and probably even a couple of them to Superman [Johnson]."

Logano and Harvick were among those with tire troubles. Harvick had two punctures on a day when the track seemed littered with bits of debris. Harvick was able to keep his car underneath him, and with a bad shifter, to boot.

Harvick, the defending Cup champion, has to feel good about his position considering his Phoenix prowess. Kyle Busch can feel somewhat comfortable, but he has a horrible Chase history -- he has never won a race in a Chase where he is in the playoffs -- and his Joe Gibbs racing team (as well as teammate Edwards') could be penalized after having their splitters confiscated prior to the race. Busch said he hoped the reaction would be no penalty, as it has been the last couple of times NASCAR has taken splitters.

If NASCAR were to react, it would create an even bigger public relations nightmare for the sanctioning body. Coming on the heels of the Kenseth suspension of what many see as NASCAR having to take action to corral the "boys have at it" attitude that it had fostered, a penalty against the JGR drivers would likely convince more fans NASCAR has it in for JGR.

NASCAR could still have "boys have at it" in the future. It just didn't have it on Sunday in a little bit of return to normalcy. Or at least sanity.

"I did everything I could to hold him off," Keselowski said of Johnson. "But he was way faster that last run.

"We really needed to win this one, and I know I gave it my all."