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Twenty races had passed since Jimmie Johnson's 74th victory. He had already been eliminated from the Chase. The AAA Texas 500 was utterly dominated -- and this is 312 laps led out of a possible 334 -- by Brad Keselowski, who needed to win it in order to stay alive.

Too bad. After watching Keselowski do the heavy lifting all day, Johnson greased the skids and stole the load.

Keselowski has one more shot this week at Phoenix International Raceway. He's at the helm of a ship in perilous waters. The same is true of Joey Logano, his Penske Racing teammate, and Kurt Busch. Kevin Harvick probably doesn't have to win in order to advance into the Chase's final, title-determining round of four. Harvick has won the past four Sprint Cup races at PIR. He's the man to beat in this one, obviously.

If Logano doesn't come through, the Chase final will lack the three biggest race winners -- Logano with six, Johnson and Matt Kenseth with five -- among the potential champions who will start the Ford EcoBoost 400, at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 22, all even.

Cookies will crumble one more time before four are left for one final round of disintegration. Johnson's victory was reminiscent of several races during Jeff Gordon's heyday. A driver, often Dale Jarrett, would dominate a race in the same fashion as Keselowski in Texas, only to have someone else, often Gordon, win.

It's easy to understand why a driver would tell the crew, Don't change a thing. She's perfect, while other teams are trying to find something that will enable their drivers to catch the irresistible force of the day. Then the unfortunate and presumptive winner discovers ruefully that perfection can be improved upon.

Back in the 1990s, the crew chief who masterminded such Gordon victories was Ray Evernham. Now it is likely to be Chad Knaus, the smart, abrasive man who has been on the pit box for all six of Johnson's championships.

It doesn't happen often. When it does, the beneficiary is likely to be Johnson and, thus, the crew chief, Knaus.

"Jimmie and the team did a great job," Knaus said afterward. "We made huge changes on the race car through the pit stops. ... The guys that prepare the car were jumping over the wall, making changes. Other guys were changing the tires. There was a lot of activity. The guys really worked hard."

Johnson's 75th career victory brought him to within one of Dale Earnhardt and eighth place all-time. Keselowski's second place brought him to within one (race) of elimination. Them's the breaks. Keselowski will strap himself into his Ford at Phoenix and try it one more time. Once more with feeling.

The latest victory was vintage Johnson. He's a thief, so smooth and efficient that he goes virtually unnoticed until it's too late to stop him. People like to talk about how good Kyle Busch is at saving a car. They ought to talk more about how seldom Johnson has to.

The drama at the end saved the day. The race lasted 3 hours, 38 minutes, 38 seconds. Officially, that is. A more restrictive definition of the term "race" would put it at about 20 minutes of excitement. Watching Johnson track down and pass Keselowski with four laps to go was pulse-pounding. It was breathless. It was awe-inspiring. Many were reportedly still awake.

The rest of the day was almost, but not quite, as exciting as memorizing poetry. Keselowski stretched his lead. No one could do anything but conveniently blow a tire, drop debris, and tighten up the field for a few more mildly interesting minutes until Keselowski ran away and hid again.

No one's going to remember the boredom. In a few years, people will say Johnson and Keselowski swapped the lead back and forth all day long. They'll say the place was packed. They'll look at the ground, and shake their heads, and gesture with their hands, and say, "Good God Almighty, that was the greatest race there ever was."

Like much else about NASCAR these days, they will be conning your ass.