Brad Keselowksi sat seven stories above Fifth Avenue in New York City last week. He traded in his usual blue and white Miller Lite racing suit for crisp blue suit jacket as he took in the ambiance of an NYC media luncheon.
In between photoshoots and interviews, he glared out the window at the busy streets below. He was probably pondering the race at Chicagoland Speedway three days later or possibly how he plans to seize a Monster Energy Cup Series championship 10 weeks from now.
Keselowski finished sixth at Chicagoland on Sunday and maintained his fourth spot in the series standings. Before doing so, he calmly reflected on what it takes to win a championship, which he did for the first and only time in 2012.
“You have to have the right balance of speed, execution and luck,” Keselowski said. “It’s a three-legged stool. Any one of the legs falls out from underneath it, and it falls down.”
Nobody in the sport’s recent history has been able to stand upright on his stool the way Jimmie Johnson has. The reigning Cup Series champion captured his seventh career title last year, tying the record for most championships in series history.
Johnson remains in the hunt in 2017 after his eighth-place finish Sunday. Keselowski is one of just four drivers to wrestle away Johnson’s crown since Johnson won his first in 2006.
“It’s a privilege to have been at least one of the guys who have broke up the streak,” Keselowski said. “I’ll look back at it and be fond of the opportunity to be able to compete against him.”
Kevin Harvick stole a championship from Johnson in 2014. It took him 14 full seasons to do so. Johnson’s sustained stranglehold on the series constantly impeded Harvick. Johnson won five-straight championships from 2006-10, which stands as a record for consecutive titles.
A big name in the sport since his arrival in 2001, Harvick’s glory has been masked by Johnson’s. After a third-place showing at Chicagoland, and with Johnson five slots behind him in the standings, Harvick has another opportunity to overthrow him.
He reiterated Keselowski’s sentiment on what it means to still be a champion in the “Jimmie Johnson era.”
“I look at it, and I stand back, and I’m glad to be a part of it because I feel like the races and the championship that we won, we had to beat one of the best that’s ever come through our sport,” Harvick said. “And the things that Jimmie has done, the stats speak for themselves. In order to be somebody who’s won a championship and races and had success during that time frame—not the amount that he’s had—but there’s not too many people who have had the opportunity to win a championship while he’s been around.”
Kyle Busch is one of the other two drivers in addition to Keselowski and Harvick to stand above Johnson at season’s end over the last decade-plus. Tony Stewart is the other, and he has since retired. Harvick and Busch have combined for 76 Cup Series wins and have had brilliant careers in their own right.
But Johnson’s success has been other-worldly. He has 83 career victories, and at age 42, he shows no signs of slowing down. His monopoly on the sport has undermined the triumphs of otherwise all-time greats of this era. Busch and company constantly wonder when his mesmerizing reign will end.
“It weighs on everybody,” Busch said. “It’s just like, ‘Damn, man, how much more can this guy win?’ He’s won everything there is to win.”
Busch did point out rather profoundly that Johnson has yet to win at every Cup Series race track. His resume lacks conquests at Watkins Glen, Kentucky and Chicagoland. Busch has emerged victorious at them all, with an asterisk; he won the All-Star race at Charlotte.
“People within the industry want to say that that win doesn’t count because it’s not a points win at that facility,” Busch said. “So, whatever.”
Technically, he still has one track to conquer. Either way, Busch seemed thrilled to be a step ahead of Johnson in at least one category.
Every driver can’t help but compare his legacy to that of Johnson’s. In the end, they all wish to be even remotely close to No. 48. For the time being, he has them all in the rearview mirror.
But some, like Busch, have more optimism than others.
“I’d love nothing more to have Jimmie-type numbers,” Busch said. “That’s what we’re shooting for, and there’s no reason why we can’t get it.”
Busch sits tied with Keselowski at fourth in the standings. He’s made it to the final round of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, and he’s looking for a third in a row.
Busch, at age 32, has 40 Cup Series wins and one championship to his credit. When Johnson finished the 2007 season, he had just won his second championship and secured his 40th win—at age 32. Busch has matched one of those accolades and can capture the other with a championship this season.
“I hadn’t looked at that at all,” Busch said. “I thought Jimmie’s numbers were kind of out of reach, but that kind of puts it more back into reach.”
Easier said than done, but Busch has the talent and time to continue chasing Johnson’s excellence. Though Johnson’s numbers are all-time great, Busch is roughly shooting par for the course.
Although further behind, Keselowski has also put together a stellar career through age 33. He has 23 wins and the one championship. Adding another would heighten his significance.
“There’s a sense of validation that comes with doing it twice,” Keselowski said. "And I know that opportunity is front of me. I believe that we can hit it.”
All he needs is the right balance of speed, execution and luck.