Keselowski stays composed ahead of the biggest race of his career
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson needled points leader Brad Keselowski about what he's on the verge of accomplishing, and reminded him how easily it could all go away this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Seated side-by-side in a press conference Thursday, Johnson made remarks about the recent failures of Penske Racing to win the IndyCar championship and the pressure that Keselowski and his Penske team will face between now and Sunday's season NASCAR Sprint Cup season finale.
"You definitely want to plant a seed," Johnson later said of his comments.
He tried, but his time he didn't have any help. In 2010, Johnson and Kevin Harvick ganged up on points leader Denny Hamlin in a similar setting. However Johnson's jabs on Thursday weren't as direct as Tony Stewart's were last year; sensing Carl Edwards' nervousness before the 2011 finale, Stewart traded barbs with the points leader at the time. Stewart rallied to win the title, marking the second year in a row the champion came from behind in the season's last race.
Trailing Keselowski by 20 points, it will take one of the sport's greatest turnarounds for Johnson to win this crown. Keselowski needs only to finish 15th or better -- something he's done in 11 consecutive races -- to clinch his first Cup championship.
Before Keselowski can even approach that moment, Johnson knows what his rival will experience because he's been in the same position in previous title runs.
"The thing that I know is regardless of the prodding or poking that I can do, that moment is coming," Johnson said. "The a-ha moment comes for everybody that is in a championship battle. It's easy to focus right now on the drivers ... but every guy that goes over the wall to perform those pit stops can have that moment and will have that moment.
"Every guy turning a screw, a nut, a bolt, putting fuel in the car, crew chiefing the race, engineering the race, everybody has the same thing on their mind. You're protecting something. It is something we have all worked for our whole lives to get to this point."
At times, Johnson didn't need to say anything. The media reminded Keselowski what he's so close to achieving with questions about what it would mean to win car owner Roger Penske's first Cup crown, how Keselowski's family would react and about the significance of being the first Michigan native to win the Cup title.
"I was smiling to hear family questions asked and what this might mean," Johnson said. "It's very easy in your controlled environment to ignore all those thoughts. Those questions come out and it makes you think about things that you don't want to think about or talk about it and maybe haven't yet because why would you? As a racer, you don't want to assume things. I enjoy the spotlight is [on Keselowski]."
Johnson's foe didn't seem to mind such banter.
"That you know he has a motivation behind his comments discredits them of credibility," Keselowski said.
While Johnson's motivation is understood, there's no denying that competitors feel pressure in different ways and Keselowski will surely feel it at some point this weekend if not already.
He's stated throughout the Chase that the pressure to win a championship was nothing compared to what he felt earlier in his career. That was when his family's race team, which began in the 1950s, folded in 2006 with him driving for it in the Truck series. He moved to an underfunded Nationwide team only to see that organization fold, leaving him again without a ride. He noted the first time he raced for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Nationwide race, Earnhardt told him not to wreck the car.
That, Keselowski notes, is pressure. Still, he doesn't shy from what he'll face this weekend. He said he was disappointed when Johnson hit the wall last weekend at Phoenix, allowing Keselowski erase his seven-point deficit and build a large advantage on Johnson heading into this weekend.
"I wanted the pressure of coming down here and having to win the race to win the championship because that's the type of person I am," Keselowski said. "I want the ball. I want to be on the field on the last play with the ball thrown to me and that's what that moment is. There's definitely some pressure, but I like it. I thrive at it. That's what I want."
He'll get what he wants; it's just a matter of how he reacts.
Johnson faces little pressure. It's simple for him, go out and try to win and even that might not be enough. Johnson says that's OK.
"For whatever reason, I'm at peace with my situation," he said. "I don't want to be in this situation but I am strangely optimistic, and I can't explain why. There's just a feeling that people have and I'll see if this feeling comes true Sunday evening."