Moments after winning the first race in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Brad Keselowski offered an interesting description of the two months that lay ahead.
"It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout, but it's a 10-round bout," Keselowski said. "Week 1 is done and we won the round, but we didn't by any means knock them out. We've got a lot of racing left to go. We're feeling good about today, but know that we have a lot of work to do."
It turns out that this year's Chase has indeed been the equivalent of a high-speed boxing match pitting Keselowski, the young up-and-comer, against Jimmie Johnson, the cagey old champion. They have held down the top two spots in the standings throughout the first eight weeks of the Chase, with neither ever holding more than a 14-point lead. In fact, the margin between the two drivers has been greater than seven points for only one week, when Keselowski briefly held a double-digit advantage following Talladega.
Sure, there are 10 other drivers in the Chase and 41 other drivers on the track each week. But for the most part, the past eight weeks has been a mano-a-mano fight between Keselowski and Johnson, and it has been a thrill to watch. Using the boxing analogy, Johnson currently leads on the scorecard 4-3-1. He has scored more points than Keselowski in four of the eight Chase races, Keselowski out-pointed Johnson three times and they had one tie (at Kansas, where they both picked up 36 points).
That narrow advantage for Johnson is illustrated in the overall standings, where he currently holds a slim seven-point edge over Keselowski heading into the penultimate race of the Chase on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. But the momentum has definitely swung Johnson's way. Keselowski out-pointed Johnson in three of the first four rounds of the Chase, which enabled him to build that 14-point lead. Since then, however, Johnson has gone 3-0-1 on the weekly head-to-head scorecard. So it has been a month since Keselowski left a track having gotten the better of Johnson in the points.
Momentum and experience definitely are on Johnson's side, and it would be difficult to pick against him right now, especially heading into Phoenix -- no active Sprint Cup driver has been better at PIR than Johnson. In 18 career starts at the track he has four victories and 12 top-five finishes and has never ended up outside the top 15. His average finish at Phoenix is a ridiculous 5.28. The next best average among current full-time Cup drivers is Jeff Gordon at 10.78.
Keselowski, on the other hand, has an average finish of 22.17 at Phoenix with a career-best showing of fifth. But those stats are somewhat deceptive. First of all, Keselowski has made only six starts at PIR, so his body of work at the track is limited. Johnson finished 15th twice during his first six Phoenix starts, indicating that it takes time for a driver to truly figure out the best way around the 1-mile oval. In addition, Keselowski turned in what was easily his best career performance at PIR during his previous visit to the track, back in March when he finished fifth. Over the past three Phoenix races, Keselowski's average finish is a solid 12.67, so it appears that he is learning the track. With the championship on the line, look for Keselowski to have a top-10 run this weekend.
But would that be good enough? After all, when Keselowski finished fifth at PIR in March, the driver who crossed the finish line one spot ahead of him that day was none other than Johnson. That is the problem Keselowski faces right now. Even when he has a good race, it seems like Johnson is even better. Keselowski has a stellar average finish of 6.75 over the past four races. But Johnson has a 3.5 average during that span with two victories. As a result, Keselowski has gone from a 14-point lead to a seven-point deficit, even while running well enough to pull away from most of the rest of the Chase drivers.
This is the moment in the fight when the youngster either gathers himself for one final strong push or simply wilts under the pressure and fatigue. Denny Hamlin, for example, appeared to have Johnson on the ropes two years ago but then closed with finishes of 12th at Phoenix and 14th at Homestead, while Johnson posted consecutive top-five finishes on the way to his fifth consecutive championship.
The guess here is that instead of fading away, Keselowski is going to keep throwing some serious punches at Johnson over the final two weeks and make him earn his sixth Cup championship. Keselowski seems to have the right combination of confidence and determination, while not letting the pressure get to him. At one point during a caution in last week's race at Texas, Keselowski -- a Michigan native -- spent time chatting with crew chief Paul Wolfe about the Detroit Lions' victory that day. Obviously this is not a driver who is succumbing to the tension. If anything, he simply seems to be enjoying the moment in an almost Zen-like way.
"I want [the championship] really bad, but it's also important to maintain your sanity and to do the things that you did to get where you're at right now," Keselowski said this week. "And for me that's finding a happy spot in my life and my place and role as a human being on this earth, whether that's in the race car or out."
The guess here is that Johnson will be able to block and counterpunch anything Keselowski throws at him over the final two races and emerge with yet another Cup championship. He and crew chief Chad Knaus are simply too good and too experienced to let a lead slip away with the title practically in their grasp.
But it won't be easy, something that Johnson acknowledge after his victory at Texas when he described the points battle with Keselowski as "bare-knuckle fighting." It is a fight that will likely go the distance, all the way to the final laps at Homestead. And if Keselowski manages to slip in a lucky punch or two, he just might walk away with the trophy as the undisputed champion of Sprint Cup.