FORT WORTH, Texas - Jimmie Johnson finally looked at the "big picture" Sunday evening at Texas Motor Speedway, but not until he'd earned his third straight Nextel Cup victory in a dramatic battle with Matt Kenseth late in the Dickies 500.
While in Victory Lane celebrating his ninth win of the season, which also allowed him to take the lead in the Chase for the Nextel Cup away from teammate Jeff Gordon, Johnson finally saw a replay of some of the heart-thumping racing he did with Kenseth.
"I was more sideways than I thought I was," Johnson said, grinning a little sheepishly. "I was pretty crossed up a few times."
Boy howdy, as they might say in Texas, was he ever.
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Kenseth didn't need replays to show him what went on after he took two tires and Johnson got four on their final pit stops.
"I felt like I was sideways the whole time," said Kenseth, who did everything humanly possible to deny Johnson yet another win on what could be his march to a second straight championship. "I stayed in there as long as I could."
It was, simply put, tremendous racing between two drivers who each have championships on their resumes.
"It came down," Johnson said, "to a full-blown brawl."
Well, not quite.
Despite the fact that Kenseth was so far sideways coming off Turn 4 on Lap 324 that he was looking more at Johnson's right-rear quarterpanel than the track in front of him, their battle for the race victory was as good as Nextel Cup racing gets.
And despite the fact that Johnson emerged with not only a victory but a 30-point lead over Gordon, who finished seventh on Sunday, this wasn't about points at all.
"It entered my mind, but I feel like I was doing a good job balancing those emotions in the car," Johnson said of championship considerations as he and Kenseth locked horns.
"I tried for a lap or two to get by him and I could feel that he was crowding me. I actually let him go and thought I could get back there and race him again. - I was kind of fighting some demons back and forth on it."
Car owner Rick Hendrick said he had his hand nervously near the button on his radio to remind his driver that a wreck would have been a big price to pay for adding another victory to this year's growing pile.
"We had an awful lot at stake," Hendrick said. "I thought, 'We don't need to do this.' But I felt like Jimmie was under control."
It seems that Johnson thrives in such situations. The last time he won three straight races it was in the 2004 Chase as he tried to run down leader Kurt Busch for the championship. He fell eight points short that year, but last year Johnson finished first once and second four times in a five-race stretch to dig out of a hole, taking the lead for good with a runner-up finish here on his way to his first championship.
"I don't look forward to those pressure-packed situations," Johnson said. "It's not like I sit up at night and hope that they develop. But when I am in them, I seem to do a decent job."
Johnson said Kenseth was one of only a handful of drivers he'd trust enough to battle that hard. Kenseth, meanwhile, was hoping Johnson would give more regard to what he had to lose.
"I didn't give him extra room at all," Kenseth said. "I thought of the points thing and thought maybe he would back out of it."
Johnson was fourth on the final restart on Lap 306, but passed Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray with relative dispatch and was second by Lap 313. He thought his four tires would carry him on past Kenseth, too, but Kenseth began running in the higher line to force Johnson to go low to try to take away the lead. It was tougher than Johnson figured it was going to be, and after making several thrusts he finally got the job done, clearing Kenseth's Ford with just less than two laps left.
Johnson spun out late and finished 14th at Charlotte three races ago to fall 68 points behind Gordon, who won that night for a second straight week. Since then, Gordon has finished third, seventh and seventh and still lost 98 points to Johnson in the standings.
"It's still close, but they're spanking us," Gordon said. "They are putting it to us. We've got to go to work. We've got to answer back. That's all there is to it."
Johnson not only expects Gordon and his team to do that, he's hoping for it.
"I want to win a championship by outracing the best in the business," Johnson said. "Being pushed so hard by my teammate and needing to perform. ... Again, I don't look forward to it, but now that I am in the situation this is what I want to be part of."