FORT WORTH (AP) – Jeff Gordon was fighting mad and now teammate Jimmie Johnson is in quite a fight of his own in his drive for an unprecedented fifth championship in a row.
Johnson lost his points lead to Denny Hamlin with two races left in a close three-way chase for the Sprint Cup after another frustrating Sunday in Texas, when some troublesome pit stops early led to an unusual midrace crew change.
“I just watched the World Series and when a pitcher is not doing his job, they make a change and get someone in who can,” Johnson said. “We just had some things going on today that we couldn’t rebound from and it really put us in a bad position. … It kind of led to the bad result.”
Gordon’s crew was conveniently available after he was wrecked out of the race and got into a backstretch scuffle with Jeff Burton.
On two stops early in the race, Johnson lost ground because of problems changing the front right tire. He had climbed to as high as second before those stops, but restarted after the second during a caution in 13th place, while Hamlin and Harvick both ran in the top six.
While Hamlin won after officially leading the final 29 laps, Matt Kenseth shot past him briefly on the restart with three laps to go before Hamlin quickly recovered to win at the 1 1/2-mile, high-banked track for the second time this year. Kenseth finished second, ahead of Mark Martin.
Hamlin won at Texas in April, less than three weeks after surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee, when Johnson was the runner-up. Hamlin’s first race after the surgery was a 30th-place finish at Phoenix, where the Chase goes next weekend.
“I’m going to race Phoenix as if I’m 33 behind,” Hamlin said. “There’s no comfortable margin going into Homestead because anything can happen. … I’m not going to be conservative having the lead. I’m going to want to stretch that out before we get to Homestead. So that’s pretty much my mindset.”
Greg Biffle led 11 times for 224 of the 334 laps, but finished fifth after some transmission problems. The 20th Cup race at Texas included a record 33 lead changes.
Kevin Harvick finished sixth and remained third in the Chase, 59 points behind Hamlin.
Gordon was done when Burton sent his car crashing during a caution on lap 192.
After the two got out of their mangled cars, an angry Gordon walked from the top to the bottom of the track, where he hit Burton with a hard two-handed push and took a few swings. Two NASCAR officials quickly got between them.
“I was walking toward him and I started going through all the scenarios in my mind. Thankfully I had a long walk down there to him …. I wanted to show him how upset I was but I wanted to do a whole lot more than that,” Gordon said. “He’s a guy that’s usually very rational and I respect his opinion. He apologized and said it was his fault. He said he didn’t mean to do it and whatever. It’s over.”
Right before the caution, Burton drove down the track toward Gordon coming off the backstretch in an area where it was hard to see because of the setting sun. When the flag came out, Gordon drove next to and then past Burton, who said he then was trying to catch up to acknowledge his mistake when they crashed.
“Honestly, I don’t know what happened. … 100 percent, it was my fault,” Burton said. “I don’t blame him for being mad. I would have been mad, too. … I don’t have a bit of a problem with what he did.”
Soon after that, Gordon’s crew went to work on the No. 48 car while Johnson’s crew went and packed up the No. 24 car’s stall. It wasn’t enough to save Johnson’s day.
While Hamlin and Johnson rarely were side-by-side on the track, their pit stalls were. Hamlin’s crew picked the one right in front of the four-time defending champion, a bit of gamesmanship that might have affected the outcome.
“When it was time to choose pits, that one was an option. I felt like that was our best option. You take the Chase hat off and you say, ‘What’s going to be best for our race team?’, and I felt like we could outrun those guys all day,” Hamlin’s crew chief Mike Ford said. “We went beside them, and those guys faltered, and it made them panic and push to the point where they made changes. I think it worked out very well for us.”
Ford said any possible courtesy was “thrown out the window at Kansas.”
For Johnson, it was just more Texas trouble.
Last fall, Johnson crashed on the third lap in the fall race at Texas and sat in the garage for more than 100 laps while repairs were made. But he had a huge lead then and it wasn’t enough to derail his championship run.
This time, he’s chasing.
“I’ve lost plenty of championships in the past. This is racing. It doesn’t come easy,” Johnson said. “You’re not going to get what you want every single year and every single weekend.”
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