They were a couple of tenacious drivers trying to win the race.
Even with so much to lose, the two traded bumps in a desperate, if not defiant, battle for the lead, neither willing to back down.
Johnson got in the last punch, finally passing Keselowski with two laps to go and running away to a spirited victory.
“The gloves are off and it’s bare-knuckle time,” Johnson said after winning for the second consecutive week. “I expect it to be like this the rest of the way.”
Keselowski was in position to win the race – and take the lead in the Chase for the Championship – with 20 laps remaining in regulation. There were three cautions in the final 23 laps and that gave Johnson three chances on the re-starts to make the winning pass.
The third time was the charm.
“I made sure I got everything right on that last re-start,” Johnson said.
Keselowski easily stayed out front on the first re-start by taking off a little early. He and Johnson ran side-by-side for a lap after the second re-start, once with Keselowski drifting to the right and knocking both of them sideways.
“You’re going to have that to a certain degree,” Johnson said. “I was a little shocked by his commitment in Turn 1. I talk about driving up so high that I see Elvis. I saw Elvis.”
But the third re-start, which followed Mark Martin’s crash with five laps to go, gave Johnson one final chance. Although he re-started second, Johnson made it work by beating him to the starting line and running the high groove, which kept Keselowski pinned on the bottom and unable to generate any momentum.
Unlike the previous re-start, Keselowski didn’t try to rough Johnson up.
“I felt like we were going to wreck,” he said. “That’s not the way you want to win a race, not the way you want to win a championship. We were lucky to survive that.”
Keselowski wound up second, while Kyle Busch was third. Matt Kenseth was fourth, Tony Stewart was fifth, Clint Bowyer was sixth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. came in seventh.
Johnson, who led the most laps, extended his lead in the championship to seven points with two races remaining.
Bowyer is third in points, but his hopes are bleak after falling behind by 36 points.
Kasey Kahne also had a chance to forge his way into championship contention, but he created one of the three cautions at the end with a wreck. He finished 25th and essentially is eliminated from the Chase.
Keselowski fought through other challenges, including a problem on pit road with 59 laps remaining. He came onto pit lane with the lead and left in ninth place after he had to back up to drive around Danica Patrick’s car.
He recovered during the next caution by gambling on a two-tire change while everyone else on the lead lap took four. He kept that lead until the green-white-checkered re-start that extended the race one extra lap.
“When you catch the breaks that he caught today with the yellows and then you execute like they can, you’re unbeatable,” Keselowski said. “I’m confident that we can execute at a high level. I’m confident that the way it’s worked over the last three weeks, we haven’t caught good breaks or bad breaks and he’s caught several really good ones.”
The series moves to the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway next Sunday.