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Keselowski, Johnson back where rivalry took root

April 12, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Keselowski, Johnson back where rivalry took root
Five months ago, the two drivers were fighting for the Sprint Cup championship

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FORT WORTH, Texas -- Their haulers may be parked alongside one another in the garage area at Texas Motor Speedway, but away from the race track, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski live very different lives. The former is a family man who recently announced that he and his wife are expecting a second child. The latter is a young, first-time champion who recently bought a van he plans to get painted like the one in the television show “The A-Team.”

“It will be a replica van,” Keselowski, the reigning champion of the Sprint Cup Series, explained. “I am going to paint it ‘A-Team’ colors and put the spoiler on it, and I will use it to drive to races at Martinsville and Bristol, someplace short. Charlotte, Darlington. It isn’t built yet, so I won’t have it ’til the late fall, but I think that will be really neat. I like stuff that is kind of quirky.”

This is the same guy, after all, who on Wednesday met the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders (“I was a good boy,” he promised) and is still looking to buy a tank. (“Until it’s done, I don’t want to say anything,” he added on that front.) And yet, the current and five-time champion are linked at Texas by more than just transporter proximity, given that it was here five months ago where their battle for the 2012 title crystalized into a head-to-head matchup that left race cars wiggling and spectators on the edge of their seats.

What we know today is Jimmie vs. Brad really took root here in Texas, with a slam-bang finish to the track’s fall race. Johnson won it, taking advantage of a late restart and weathering wheel-to-wheel contact to pull away from Keselowski at the end. That event established a rivalry which has transcended last season, and finds Johnson and Keselowski once again first and second in points as the series returns to Fort Worth.

Johnson’s victory here last fall gave him a seven-point lead entering the season’s final two races, but a blown tire the next week at Phoenix opened the door enough for Keselowski to barge through and secure his first crown. Over the early stages of this year, Keselowski and Johnson have often found themselves dicing it up again, particularly in a Daytona 500 where a wounded No. 2 car was the final obstacle the victorious No. 48 team had to overcome. Coming out of Martinsville, Johnson and Keselowski found themselves again 1-2 in the standings, with six points between them, almost exactly how they left here last fall.

"I knew that we were strong and I think as a team we carry a lot of confidence coming here."

-- Brad Keseowski on returning to Texas

Over the past several races dating back to last season, it sometimes seemed like the two drivers are racing each other as much as they are everybody else.

“It feels that way sometimes doesn’t it?” Keselowski conceded. “Yeah, believe me, I know where he is at, and he knows where I am at. … You can never just focus on one guy solely, but that doesn’t mean you can’t lend a stronger eye to one guy over the others.”

Johnson, who assumed the points lead after winning last week at Martinsville, isn’t ready to proclaim this season a head-to-head face-off with Keselowski, not with so many other drivers vying to keep him from a sixth title. But he looks at the relationship between Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, and he sees a lot of similarities between himself and crew chief Chad Knaus. And in the No. 2 team, he sees an operation that isn’t fading anytime soon.

“It’s not really fair to say it’s just a 2 and 48 thing,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it does -- I expect a lot out of that 2 car. They proved it last year. They’re only getting smarter, and the more time they spend together, the more experience they have. They’re only getting stronger. It’s evident that the relationship that Paul and Brad have is something like Chad and I have had, and Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon had. You can go down through the list of the great pairings of drivers and crew chiefs. I absolutely expect him to be there in it. But the garage area is full of a lot of competitive drivers and crew chiefs. It wouldn’t necessarily be fair to say it’s a 48-2 thing, but it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if that’s what it came down to.”

Returning to Texas refreshes memories of last year’s finish, as memorable as any in the 2012 campaign. With eight laps remaining, Johnson and Keselowski clanged off one another, but both drivers kept their cars pointed straight. An accident involving Mark Martin set up a final restart with two to go and the contenders on the front row. More contact ensued, but Johnson managed to edge ahead of Keselowski and hold on for the victory.

“It was awesome,” Johnson remembered. “I enjoyed it in the car. I thought I was going to get turned around in (turns) 1 and 2 on one of the restarts we had, but we didn’t. We raced right to that ragged edge and pulled it off. Of course I had a good perspective of it after the race. When I watched the video, I smiled. That was good, hard racing.”

Keselowski watched the replay as recently as Wednesday. What did he think?

“I wish there weren’t so many damn yellows. That’s what I think,” he said. And yet, that runner-up result last fall was by far Keselowski’s best finish in Texas, and he’s optimistic that success will carry over even though he’s driving a redesigned car made by a different manufacturer.

“I knew that we were strong,” he said, “and I think as a team we carry a lot of confidence coming here.”

Certainly, Johnson feels the same way. And if another Texas race produces another showdown between last year’s top title contenders, he’s confident they’ll again be able to race one another with equal degrees of tenacity and respect. Despite all they had at stake last year, despite the likelihood of both drivers being in the championship cauldron again this season, Keselowski and Johnson have maintained the best kind of rivalry -- one where they try to beat the heck out of each other, and then shake hands afterward.

“I have this relationship with a lot of guys where, we’re going to race hard. I think Brad and I, what we showed here in the fall showed that,” Johnson said. “We’re going to race hard and get right to that line. But there’s nothing malicious involved in it. Absolutely, I want to crush him. I want to lap him every race. And I know he wants to do the same to me, and I feel that way about others. But I’ll get out, I’ll have a beer with him, I’ll get out and shake his hand and congratulate him on a win. But in the heat of that moment, I want to crush him. I mean, I don’t want bad things to happen to him. But absolutely, I have that competitive spirit and I want to crush him.”

There’s no better place for another shootout than Texas, where the Brad vs. Jimmie rivalry reached its crescendo five months ago. And the way they were able to race one another here last fall -- hard, but within limits -- only makes Johnson and Keselowski more comfortable with the idea of mixing it up again.

“For sure,” Johnson said. “I have that great relationship with quite a few guys. There are others you get around, maybe they don’t have that much experience racing for a win, so you’re not sure how they’re going to handle it. Or maybe they’re in a position where they’re very hungry and aggressive, and you have to weigh those things out. But I put Brad in that category racing Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, and guys I really trust and don’t even think about it. Just racing for the win.”

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