From early on it was clear that only the cruellest twist of fate could deny Jimmie Johnson a comprehensive Chase race victory at Texas Motor Speedway - and the gods clearly didn't have it in them to deliver such a blow to the five-time champion on Sunday afternoon. Instead they chose to look on and smile benignly as the #48 bobbed to the top time and again, and Johnson was still far out in front at the end of the 500-mile marathon event as the chequered flag came out to direct him to a thoroughly deserved victory lane celebration with his name on it.
"This was an awesome, awesome race car," he said afterwards. "Just a dominant day for this Lowe's team. I can't thank everybody at Hendrick Motorsports enough for their hard efforts. Great car, great effort. Pit stops - all across the board. This Chevy was fast," he continued, adding: "And we needed it. Matt didn't have the best day and he finished fourth or fifth so it's hard to get points in this championship battle - and we got a couple today."
Almost three and a half hours previously, it had been Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski who had led the field to the green flag for the start of the AAA Texas 500, with Edwards immediately clearing off into the lead while Keselowski quickly fell prey to a rush of Chase contenders that included Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. Edwards' spell in front lasted for just nine laps before Johnson moved past him on the outside line through turn 1, laying down an early marker before the first debris for caution on lap 16 which enabled the teams to bring their cars in for an early check on tyre wear.
The polesitter's claim to the prime pit box location allowed Edwards to beat Johnson off pit road and take lead again at the restart on lap 19, and once more it was just a matter of time before Johnson got back into the groove and retook the lead for the second time as the #99 again started to get too loose the longer the stint wore on. Many teams were discussing similar set-up issues ahead of the next round of pit stops, but they were wary of doing anything dramatic that might backfire on them once the conditions changed after sunset for the final quarter of the 500-mile, 334-lap race at the 1.5-mile speedway.
The next pit stops came slightly earlier than expected, with a caution on lap 58 after Kyle Busch slid up the track from second place and broadsided the wall, doing heavy damage to the right hand side of the #18 in what seemed a bodyblow to his remaining Chase hopes. It was an echo of Busch's Nationwide race 24 hours previously that had been undone by catastrophic tyre delamination on a long early stint, and the #18 crew poured over the discarded tyres to see whether the same situation was to blame here too. Repairs put Busch down into 29th place but at least he'd avoided going a lap down for the time being - now it remained to be seen whether the car was still race worthy.
Edwards won the race off pit road again and led Johnson, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth and Keselowski to the green flag on lap 65. The regular pattern had just repeated itself with Johnson going back to the front when a new caution came out for Johnson's Hendrick Motorports team mate Jeff Gordon running into the wall hard at turn 2 after the left front tyre failed on him. In this case there was no alternative but to send the #24 straight to the garage for some serious attention: it seemed as though the Chase was finally over for Gordon, who had managed to successfully inject himself into the battle just last weekend with victory at Martinsville.
"I just know that the left front went down as I was going down the front straightaway," Gordon told the media as he watched his crew hard at work. "I felt it before I got there, and I just couldn't get it slowed down enough. I don't know; the wind was so strong that the car was doing funky things down the straightaways. I don't know if that was a slow leak, or if it just went all of a sudden.
"Our car just didn't take off very good, but boy was it strong on the long runs," he added. "We just needed to get some better track position; get on the inside on those restarts, and we actually had a really, really good race car. But, unfortunate. This is definitely going to hurt. We just get what we can out of this day and go on to Phoenix." Gordon eventually returned to the race track 185 laps down in an effort to win back a few positions from early retirees.
Despite the short green flag stint, the cars still streamed back through pit road with Brad Keselowski getting the jump on the others by opting for two tyres only ahead of Edwards and Johnson - a brave move given the tyre issues. The gamble didn't unduly affect his initial pace at the restart on lap 80, but inevitably it was only a matter of time - 12 laps to be precise - before Johnson was back in front with Kenseth and Logano following him through. Predictably Keselowski was one of the first to take to pit road at the next round of stops which began under green flag conditions on lap 120; Johnson and Kenseth were among the last to cycle through, not that it stopped Johnson from resuming in the lead once more. The running order at the front remained little changed over the next 40 laps through to the start of the next round of pit stops which took the race past the halfway point.