CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A sense of inevitability, something common in serialized horror movies, currently pervades NASCAR's title Chase. While the characters are ever changing, the antagonist remains to inflict his will sequel after sequel.
Now it's Brad Keselowski's turn to be the antagonist and do what Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin could not: beat Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup championship -- or join the list of drivers who finished second to Johnson.
Keselowski's seven-point lead on Johnson heading into Sunday's race at Martinsville seems thin, decreasing the hope some have that he'll deny Johnson of his sixth title. Gordon, though, doesn't see it that way. As he examines the title contenders with four races left, he sees Keselowski as a worthy challenger to Johnson, and he thinks Denny Hamlin, third in the points, needs a fast turnaround.
"For Brad, the pressure is on, but he's not the kind of guy that, to me, cracks under pressure,'' Gordon said.
Gordon points to last weekend's race at Kansas Speedway. While many gush about Johnson's comeback from a mid-race crash to finish ninth and not fall further behind in the title race, Gordon says don't overlook Keselowski's finish that day.
"To me, his performance [last weekend] ... was equally as impressive as Jimmie's because he struggled, but they finished eighth and maintained the points lead,'' Gordon said.
At the same time, Gordon notes Keselowski can't repeat his struggles in any of the remaining races or he could lose the title.
"If you're going to go to battle with [Johnson's team], you're going to have to step up your performance. They've had the performance a lot this year but for whatever reason they didn't have it in Kansas,'' Gordon said.
So, who does Gordon see as the favorite in this Chase?
"I think it's hard to go against [Johnson], but to me things appear to be going [well] for Brad,'' Gordon, who's one of Johnson's teammates, said. "Sometimes you evaluate things based on just good fortune and being at the right place at the right time and all these different things. In that sense, [Keselowski], to me, has performed the best up to this point, which is why they're leading the points. If that continues to happen and they can step up there and get some great finishes and maybe even a win or two, then I don't think they're going to get beat.''
Keselowski has outdueled Johnson for the much of the last four months, finishing better than Johnson in 12 of the last 16 races, dating back to the Kentucky race that Keselowski won in late June. While that streak is impressive, the pressure's building with less than a month left in the season. And Keselowski is going up against one of the best Sprint Cup drivers of the last decade.
The first two years that Johnson won the title, he wasn't leading at this point in the Chase. He was third in 2006 with four races to go before finishing with three second-place finishes and a ninth to secure the title and setting him on a journey toward five consecutive championships.
"The position that someone is in without being a champion previously, you're wondering, 'what do I need to do, what does that roadmap look like?''' Johnson said. "Once I had 2006 under my belt, I had more confidence in the road that I was I following.''
When chasing the title, Johnson's been both behind and ahead with just four races left. In 2007, Johnson was second to Gordon and won three in a row, leading Gordon to proclaim the title chase was "over'' before the season finale. In 2008, '09 and '10, Johnson led the points with four races to go -- but in 2010, he lost the lead with two races to go to Hamlin before winning it back in the season finale.
"When you're Jimmie, you've won it all different ways,'' Gordon said. "So, there are very few surprises. He could be in a comfortable position leading, he could be in a comfortable position trailing and that's what makes him very dangerous.''
However, Johnson does admit he'd rather be leading than chasing.
"Sure the pressure is off to a small degree because you're not protecting anything,'' he said of trailing in points. "Some people handle the pressure well and others don't. It just kind of depends on your make and what you've been through in your career.''
But for those who expect Keselowski to wilt, he's shown an ability to handle adversity. Some will point to last season when he suffered a broken ankle in a crash in testing and then won at Pocono a few days later as a sign of Keselowski's toughness, but it goes back further.
"Being tough was surviving the process of getting here to this level of the sport, putting up with all the [stuff] that that entails,'' he told me a year ago. "I've already been through hell and back to get here.''
Keselowski had two teams, including his family-owned Camping World Truck Series team fold while he was driving for them. He got a break as a fill-in when a driver was suspended for a truck race, caught the eye of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in that race, leading Keselowski to JR Motorsports and back on a path to Cup.
Just as that experience steeled Keselowski, last year's Chase also proved helpful. He was as high as third in the points until Martinsville when he was spun in the final laps and lost more than 10 spots, all but ending his title hopes.
"He learned a lot about racing for the championship and what it takes in these final 10 races,'' Gordon said. "I think that what has really put them in position to be as good as they are right now and having a real legitimate shot at the championship.''
Also still in the picture is Hamlin, who has key Chase experience, battling Johnson for the tittle two years ago. Gordon says that Hamlin, who is third in the standings, 20 points behind Keselowski needs to make a stand at Martinsville.
"This is a crucial weekend for him because Martinsville is really his bread and butter,'' Gordon said.
Hamlin's four Martinsville victories trail only Gordon (seven) and Johnson (six) for most among active drivers. After finishing 13th at Kansas to fall further behind Keselowski, Hamlin tweeted that it was "time for MAX points.''
"I look at [Johnson] and Hamlin, when you look at the championship, as being the two guys to run up front,'' Gordon said forecasting Martinsville. "Keselowski, this is not his best track but he's been able to step up this year. It's going to be interesting to see.''