Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge, began the 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with a bang, winning the postseason opener to take the championship points lead for the first time in his career and then occupying the top spot in the standings through much of the Chase so far.
But Jimmie Johnson has come on the last couple of weeks, showing signs of previous championship dominance. He took the win at Martinsville (Va.) a couple of weeks ago to replace Keselowski atop the standings by a miniscule two-point margin and then followed that up with a second-consecutive weekend last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway to pull out to a seven-point lead over his primary competition, Keselowski.
It’s a small amount of control, but we’re definitely in control," Johnson said. "We don’t have to catch any or make up any points.
“It’s a small amount of control, but we’re definitely in control," Johnson said. "We don’t have to catch any or make up any points. Seven points is nothing to feel comfortable about and to relax on. We’re still going to go into Phoenix and act as if we’re behind and go in there to try to sit on the pole and win the race again.”
While Keselowski agrees the deficit he has on Johnson isn't large enough for the five-time champion to feel comfortable about, it also isn't small.
“I mean, it's not a little and it's not a lot, it's something," Keselowski said. "There's no doubt about that. But with two races left and the ability to win on the last two races and that being enough to overcome that deficit, to me it is what it is, and we feel like we can fight around it.”
Keselowski has said multiple times this season that he doesn't put much stock in past statistics. Maybe at least part of the reason for that mindset is that Keselowski's statistics this year aren't a mirror image of his past statistics. This year has been, by far, his best season since joining the Sprint Cup ranks full time just a few short years ago.
Not paying attention to statistics is probably good for the Keselowski ego, especially heading into Sunday's Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Johnson is good at Phoenix. As a matter-of-fact, he's a four-time winner at the track, and three of those four wins came in the fall Chase race at PIR.
"The track has had some time to age and I hope it’s lost some grip so we will definitely move out," Johnson said. "They spent a lot of time and effort to try to create extra lanes of racing through their modeling. I hope they’re right. The first time there, it was pretty narrow and I hope that, as it ages, we can get a wider racetrack and really put on a good show.”
Also past trends show that Johnson being in the points lead after race 34 (last weekend's race at Texas) bodes well for a sixth Cup title for Johnson. In four of his championship seasons, he was the points leader after race 34.
But Keselowski's not paying attention to trends and statistics, or at least he says he not. Besides, he's in the midst of a season in which he is performing much better than his past statistics show, so the close championship battle is still up in the air.
"I just continue to learn the strength of a team that does not give up and that will not say no and that will not just fall back when things don't go their way, and that is so powerful, and that's what I think both Jimmie and I have," Keselowski said.
“The message we're trying to send is that we're not giving up," Keselowski said. "We have a lot of tools in our toolbox to continue to fight. I think if you review the situation at Texas, there were essentially four times where I felt like we had control of the finish of the race and a yellow or some unfortunate circumstance kind of took that back from us, and eventually that fifth one, that fifth bad break caught up to us there at the end. So that was unfortunate, but we sent a message there that it's going to take a lot of punches for us to flinch and that we're going to continue to fight hard as far down the line as it takes.”