FORT WORTH, Texas — Jimmie Johnson won a dramatic side-by-side duel with Matt Kenseth, grabbing his third straight victory and, more important, wresting the NASCAR Nextel Cup points lead from Jeff Gordon on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
The reigning Cup champion, who began the day nine points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon, moved out to a 30-point lead with two races remaining in the Chase for the championship.
Gordon, a four-time champion, led early in the race, but was no factor in the late going, struggling with handling before managing to squeeze out a hard-earned seventh-place finish that kept the points battle close heading to Phoenix next week.
Johnson, who took the points lead for good at Texas last year on the way to his first and only title, said, “I do know we’re racing for the championship and now we have control of it, I guess.”
Kenseth was one of three drivers who moved to the front on the final pit stops by the leaders on lap 301, taking only two tires. Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, decided to change all four on the No. 48 Chevrolet and his driver came out fifth for the restart on Lap 306 of the 334-lap race.
Kenseth took the lead from Ryan Newman on the restart and it took Johnson until lap 313 to move to second. He then began closing quickly on the No. 17 Ford of Kenseth, who had a lead of just over one second.
Once Johnson caught him, the two battled lap after lap, with both wiggling dangerously several times and bumping at least once.
“We raced a long time, but he was probably pretty confident I wasn’t going to wreck him,” said Kenseth, who also finished second in Texas in April when he was passed on the last lap by Jeff Burton. “I didn’t get him much extra room at all.
“I felt like I was sideway the whole time. One time, (I) just about spun out. That would have been bad. I’m glad I was able to gather that up and keep going.”
They crossed the finish line exactly even — the timing showing the difference as 0.000 seconds — on lap 328 and lap 332 as Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, tried desperately to hold off Johnson.
But the determined Johnson, who was shown as the leader on lap 332, finally got some space on Kenseth with two laps to go and raced away to his third straight victory and ninth of the season, winning by 0.944 seconds — about 10 car-lengths.
It was Johnson’s 32nd career victory and first on the 1.5-mile Texas oval. He led four times Sunday for a total of nine laps.
“I expected a good fight,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think his two tires would last that long or be that good. There wasn’t much time left to get it done.”
Knaus, who has teamed with Johnson for his entire Cup career, said, “I felt like four tires would be better (on the last stop), but I knew we’d have to have a great stop and the guys got us out there in good shape.”
A disappointed Kenseth said, “He ran me down from a long way back. I don’t know how fast he was, but I was steadily losing grip. Four tires is just too much.”
Third-place Clint Bowyer, the surprise of the Chase, saw his chances for a championship all but end when he had to make two green-flag stops because of a tire vibration, losing two laps and finishing 19th. That left him a daunting 181 points behind Johnson.