FORT WORTH, Texas - Just before Jimmie Johnson took off for the final 30 laps of Sunday's Dickies 500, he got a little extra incentive on his two-way radio.
"Go get us a cowboy hat!" said team spotter Ron Thiel.
One of the rewards for winning at Texas Motor Speedway are 10-gallon Stetsons. Johnson earned his first one after winning a stirring five-lap, side-by-side battle with Matt Kenseth. Just like he did a year ago to win the Chase for the Championship, Johnson, who rarely needs such motivation, was at his best when it counted most -- the stretch drive.
He was fifth during the re-start with 30 laps to go and his charge was impressive. He got to second place without much of a struggle, but Kenseth wasn't as easy. He was comfortable keeping his Ford within inches of Johnson's Chevrolet. Neither backed down, both pushing their cars on the brink all the way around the 1.5-mile raceway.
With two to go, Johnson finally got the advantage and pulled away to his third win in a row. In the process, he took a 30-point lead over Jeff Gordon in the playoffs with two races to go.
"I knew it was going to be a battle to the end," Johnson said. "I'm glad I was able to get by. It wasn't the best at the beginning, but we kept working on it. Now we're racing for the championship. Now we have control.
"At the end, we were able to keep working forward. it came down to a full-blown brawl with Matt. It was a lot of fun. It put me in a bad situation with the championship, but I knew he wouldn't clean me out."
A year ago Johnson took the lead in the playoffs at Texas with second-place finish, and he stayed there to the final lap. Kenseth said he did everything except crash Johnson to hold him off, but Johnson was too strong, especially with a second championship now within grasp.
"I made it as rough on him as I could," Kenseth said. "I did everything I could to hold him off. I hate getting beat. I can't believe the roll they're on. He knew I wasn't going to give him a lot of room, but he knew I wasn't going to wreck him."
"Matt was doing his job to get the win," Johnson said. "I knew I was going to have to find some way to get by him. He knew it was coming. I got inside him, but I got a little sideways. I backed off, gathered my thoughts, then made another run at him. At time, I thought about the points. I knew Jeff was running well, so I need every point I could get. You have to go for it."
A record-tying 12th caution for Greg Biffle's blown engine with 35 laps to go set up a final round of pit stops. Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray all changed two tires to gain track position; Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick all gambled that four new tires would be better during the stretch drive.
Johnson guess right.
He quickly passed Truex, McMurray and Newman. He was 30 yards behind Kenseth with 15 laps to go when he suddenly shot to Kenseth's back bumper.
"I thought he might back off, but he didn't," Kenseth said, hoping Johnson might figure out his place in the Chase was more important than taking so many risks at 190 mph for a single win. "They are the strongest until in the garage area, from the standpoint of a driver, a crew chief a team. They've won one championship and they're on their way to a second. Whatever it may be, they're the strongest. They are unbelievable. They're the best. They're on the top of their game."