FORT WORTH, Texas -- If Jimmie Johnson goes on to win his second consecutive Nextel Cup title, the Dickies 500 will be the moment he proved he deserves it.
Johnson won his third consecutive race Sunday, passing teammate Jeff Gordon and taking a 30-point lead in the Chase with two races remaining.
It wasn't that he won again. It's the way he won.
Johnson went for it. He didn't points race and play it safe. He mashed the gas, rolled the dice and risked it all to finish first.
His final laps were an incredible display of driving skills that past greats such as Petty, Pearson and Earnhardt Sr. could appreciate.
Johnson went old-school, got up on the wheel and outdrove Matt Kenseth in a dramatic side-by-side battle for the final seven laps.
"It came down to a full-blown brawl," Johnson said. "And I mean that in a good way. We both wanted that win at all costs. And I knew I could race Matt hard and he wouldn't take me out. He would race me hard, but he wasn't going to run into me."
It was a breathtaking finish and a classic sprint between two of the best, most-skilled drivers who gave it all they had.
And Johnson won out. Yes, he has all the advantages: a brilliant crew chief, a near-flawless pit crew and pristine equipment from the best organization in NASCAR.
But Johnson won this race because he was the most courageous driver on the track. Crew chief Chad Knaus knew it.
"Jimmie, that was great driving out there, buddy," Knaus said on the radio moments after the finish. "Absolutely phenomenal."
Kenseth also deserves credit for holding off Johnson until the next-to-last lap even though Kenseth had only two fresh tires to Johnson's four.
Kenseth thought Johnson would take a conservative approach once they started trading paint for the lead. He thought wrong.
"I hate losing," Kenseth said. "I made it as rough on [Johnson] as I could. I know he's racing for a championship. I'm glad I didn't wreck, but I'm really glad I didn't wreck Jimmie."
That almost happened with six laps to go when Kenseth got loose coming out of Turn 4 as the two cars headed side-by-side down the frontstretch.
Johnson got a slight advantage inside, but Kenseth kept it in the gas and almost fishtailed into the wall. They stayed door-to-door most of the next four laps before Johnson finally got by in Turn 2 with less than two laps to go.
It was wheel-to-wheel action like a Saturday night at the dirt track, but this was 185 mph with a Cup title on the line. This was racing the way it should be, pure and simple, with winning the only thing that mattered.
But it was a little scary for team owner Rick Hendrick. Johnson could have finished second and still left Texas with the points lead. Hendrick almost told Johnson to back off.
"I thought about it," Hendrick said. "We have an awful lot at stake here. I thought, 'We don't need to do this.' I was nervous, wanting to hit the button, but I didn't.
I trust Jimmie. He drove the wheels off of it. It was great to see because it's been a long time since we won here.
-- Rick Hendrick
"I trust Jimmie. He drove the wheels off of it. It was great to see because it's been a long time since we won here."
It was the first TMS victory of Johnson's career and the first for Hendrick Motorsports since Terry Labonte won on the 1.5-mile oval in 1999.
Gordon still is waiting for his first TMS win. He finished seventh Sunday, falling to second in the standings on a day when he knew he didn't have a winning car.
"We flat-out just got beat," Gordon said. "Those guys [Johnson's team] are just outperforming us. It was a great fight, but we're having to fight too hard to get this type of finish. We need to fight for wins."
Johnson fought for the win at the end, his ninth of the season. He has had side-by-side battles for victories in the past, but never in a situation when a title might be lost if he fought a little too hard.
"That entered my mind," Johnson said. "It was pretty intense. I was dead sideways a couple of times, and so was Matt. I could feel Matt crowding me, and I actually let him go [with six laps left]. I checked my feelings, regrouped, then went after him again."
Johnson knew the stakes. But Sunday, he wasn't a Chaser; he was just a racer, putting everything on the line to get that checkered flag.
"I was charged up in the car," Johnson said. "This is cool. I just wanted to win. It's the way I want to win a championship, by outracing the best in the business."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.