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NASCAR At Texas 2012 Preview: Title battle a two-man Texas two-step

With three races remaining in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, the championship fight is effectively a two-man race. Jimmie Johnson carries a two-point edge to the Lone Star State, where he turned in a career-defining performance in 2007.

Jerry Markland

"Ladieeees and gentlemeeeeeen. Welcome to the main event!

"In this corner, the challenger. Standing 5'10, weighing in at 155 pounds, wearing blue with gold trim. The kid who doesn't realize this fight is supposed to already be over! Driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, from Rochester Hills, MI, Bad Brad Keselowskiiiiiiiiiii!

"Aaaaaaaaaand in this corner....standing 5'11, weighing in at 175 pounds, wearing black with blue trim. The point leader and five-time heavyweight champ-een of the world! Driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet, from El Cajon, CA, Jimmiiiiiiiiiiie Johnson!"

Don't be a bit surprised if that's how Texas Motor Speedway track president and quintessential racing promoter Eddie Gossage introduces the remaining combatants in the battle for this year's Sprint Cup crown. Yes, Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne could get back into the hunt, but it's going to take a double whammy that knocks both of the top pair out of contention.

As things stand, it's a two-man fight, mano-a-mano, between the only man to ever win five-straight top-level stock car championships and the breakout star who doesn't know that this deal should have ended as soon as his rival took the point lead.

Two points is all that separate Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski heading into Sunday's AAA Texas 500. That is five-points tighter than the margin Carl Edwards held over Tony Stewart entering the Texas event last fall. Stewart of course dominated the race, Edwards finished second, and the gap was carved to three points with two races left.

In short, the folks who didn't believe the title battle could get any better after last year's duel are seeing a much-tighter fight this year around.

Texas is the site of one of Johnson's defining performances, in the 2007 running of this weekend's race. Riding a two-race winning streak entering the Dickies 500, Johnson had cut teammate Jeff Gordon's point lead to nine (under the old system, equaling 2-3 points today).

Gordon had a seventh place finish, while Johnson was running second as the laps wound down. That runner-up finish would have given Johnson a 15-point edge with two races remaining. Rather than settling for the safe bet and taking those 15 points out of Texas, Johnson got up on the wheel and chased down Matt Kenseth for the lead.

The pair of champions commenced one of the greatest duels in recent memory, with Johnson's black and silver Chevrolet breaking sideways off every corner every lap. Flirting with disaster that would have sewn up the championship for Gordon, Johnson finally slid past Kenseth with three laps to go and scooted away for his third-consecutive win.

Passing Kenseth doubled Johnson's gain on Gordon, giving him a 30-point lead. He won again at Phoenix the following week to up the margin to 86, at which point Gordon walked into victory lane waving a white flag and conceding defeat.

Johnson's run in Texas showcased not only his incredible car control - he should have wrecked off turn two nearly every lap of the battle with Kenseth - but also the type of racer the reigning and eventual (four times) champion was. Fans admire a driver who will go all out for a victory rather than settling for a good points day, and even his most-fervent detractors had to respect the performance Johnson had put in that evening.

With only two points - two positions, unless one or the other wins - separating the top-two entering Sunday's showdown, don't be surprised if Johnson puts on an encore performance or Keselowski channels his rival's '07 run if they sniff the lead late in the going.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.