News & Media

Johnson, Keselowski wage subtle title fight

November 03, 2012, David Caraviello,

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Although it may seem difficult to believe today, there was a time when Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski were teammates, albeit briefly. The one-day five-time Sprint Cup champion ran a handful of Nationwide Series races in 2007 and 2008 for JR Motorsports, an organization affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports which at the time featured a certain precocious Michigan native as driver of its flagship No. 88 car.

Keselowski can even remember the first time the two met, in a rain delay during a race at Charlotte. "I walked over to him for advice because he was outrunning me, and Charlotte had always been Jimmie's best track," he said. "I said, 'I can't hold onto this thing. My car is just all over the race track. I think I'm going to spin out every lap.' He told me, 'Just slow down and take it easy. Do what you've got to do and make sure you finish the race.'

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"I thought, man, that's good. He's right. If I can't finish 10th, finish 15th or whatever, just don't wreck this car. And we went back green, and there was a wreck in front of him. I slowed down, because I didn't know who it was. Next lap I came around, and it was Jimmie. That was my first real racing memory of him, of him telling me to slow down and not wreck on my own, and then that happened. We shared a small joke and a laugh about that next time I saw him."

And look at them now, likely the last two men standing for this season's Sprint Cup championship, and Johnson holding a narrow two-point edge over Keselowski with three races remaining on the schedule. The only thing tougher than figuring out who'll win the title is getting a feel for the personal dynamic between two primary players separated by 11 years in age. They don't seem to be friends, but they're far from enemies, and their title race hasn't yet produced something that feels like a rivalry. There have been no "he won't sleep for three weeks" statements like the one Tony Stewart leveled at Carl Edwards during the endgame 12 months ago.

No, here everything is more subtle, befitting two competitors who have nothing but nice things to say to one another -- but are both plenty capable of burying little jabs in between the lines. Of course, the five-time champion wrecked a Nationwide car the first time Keselowski met him. Of course, Johnson jokes that during most of Keselowski's time in the Hendrick family, the kid was too young for anyone to buy him a beer. Of course that delicate back-and-forth extended to the qualifying session at Texas Motor Speedway, on the first Friday in which the championship battle essentially became a two-man race.

Johnson had been decidedly average in opening practice, posting the 27th-best time of the session. Then he went out 20th in qualifying and dropped an absolute bomb, a white-knuckle lap than was two-tenths of a second better than anything else on the board, just the kind of opening salvo you'd expect from someone with his track record. The track got a little faster over the remainder of the session, but it didn't matter. No one could touch him. "When I heard the lap time, I was way impressed," Johnson said, and rightly so. He sat in his race car afterward, waiting to either get knocked out of the top spot, or head to Victory Lane to pick up the rifle that Texas awards to its pole winners.

He did the same thing a week ago at Martinsville, and went on to win the race. Johnson, superstitious? The guy who sets his alarm clock for 48 minutes after the hour, and once rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange at 8:59:48 rather than 9 a.m.? No way.

"I was ready to get out, and my engine tuner stuck his head in the car and said, 'Man, you're going to be in there a long time this week,'" Johnson said. "I was like, 'Oh, yeah, that's right. I'm not superstitions, but I'll sit here.' It doesn't mean anything, but at this point in the season you've got to pull out all the stops."

Such as his qualifying lap, which was three-quarters of a second faster than his practice speed. Did Keselowski notice? Maybe. "I haven't really been focusing that much attention on what they've been working on," said the Penske Racing driver, who vastly improved his recent qualifying fortunes by placing a solid eighth. "We know if we do all of our things and do them right, we'll be tough to beat, not just for the race but for the championship."


Race Lineup
2. G. Biffle190.382 28.364
3. Ky. Busch 190.128 28.402
4. C. Bowyer 190.067 28.411
5. M. Truex Jr. 189.994 28.422

Game on, folks. Martinsville, where Johnson won the race and Keselowski won what many termed a moral victory, was but the first chapter in a finale that shows all signs of stretching all the way to south Florida. These are two drivers who might be teammates today had Rick Hendrick had room at the inn, and Keselowski not left JRM to race Sprint Cup cars for Penske. Since then, there haven't been any notable on-track incidents between the two. Ask them about what they think of one another, and both drivers absolutely exude praise.

Johnson, on Keselowski: "My relationship with Brad has really been at-track, or racing related," he said. "We haven't had a chance to hang out too much off the track. For the longest time he hasn't been old enough to have a beer, so it has been hard to hang out too much. We've got a good relationship and, I feel, a great deal of respect for one another, and I think that is why we have handled things how we have so far and raced like we are."

Keselowski, on Johnson: "Certainly, I have a large appreciation for some of the things he's done, and obviously the championships that he's won, and his approach," he said. "So he's done a great job. But you know, it's time to set those things aside and go after the task at hand, which is essentially going to be to beat him."

That said, the understated jabs have been there. Johnson, intimating at Martinsville that the pressure was on his younger foe. Keselowski, driving the No. 48 team nuts by beating them off pit road at Michigan, and again with where he blended back onto the race track following the final pit stops in the Chase opener at Michigan. No, this isn't Stewart vs. Edwards, with all the outright swagger and bulletin-board material it produced. This championship battle is more subtle, less a heavyweight prizefight than a presidential debate -- befitting all the election-themed "Brad vs. Jimmie" banners adorning the race track this weekend.

The beauty of it all? They both know it.

Maybe when the season is all said and done, Brad Keselowski can sit down with Jimmie Johnson and have a beer. (Getty Images)

"How aware am I? How aware do you think I am?" Keselowski said with a laugh. "I have fun with it. It's supposed to be fun. But at the end of the day, you race what's on the race track, and not what you say."