NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

 
       === The Inside Line: Two-man duel with two to go in the Chase ===
 
 By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
 
 Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - 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.
 
 11/05 17:46:54 ET

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