News & Media

Younger challenger has earned Johnson's respect

November 09, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM,

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Even as they banged fenders during the final laps at Texas Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson had little fear that Brad Keselowski might do something silly -- making the kind of overly aggressive move that could have taken one or both drivers out of contending position.

A younger Keselowski, Johnson allowed, might have responded differently. The 28-year-old Dodge driver has had on-track brushes with top drivers, including Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, in the past.

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But Johnson believes that Keselowski has not only matured. He believes that he and his rival in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup have a relationship built on mutual respect.

"It never crossed my mind that he would make an intentional move to dump me," Johnson said, recalling the final two restarts at Texas and the finish that enabled him to extend his lead to seven points in the standings. "There are only a few people out there wired like that.

"We all evolve as drivers. I think [Keselowski] was more in control of his vehicle Sunday night than when he was newer to the sport. ... I've always raced him with a clear mind and not worried."

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The respect was just as evident following the race.

"The fact that he was the only driver who came to Victory Lane to shake my hand after the race in Texas, I just thought that took a lot of class," Johnson said.

A post-race tweet by Keselowski noted that Johnson had shown him that some things matter as much as checkered flags. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were among the first on the scene after his ugly test crash at Road Atlanta last August. Keselowski, who suffered a broken ankle in the crash, indicated Johnson showed concern at that moment when he did not have to.

"He knows where I am with my morals and that I do care about others," Johnson said Friday.

What Johnson doesn't care about, he claims, are the boos from fans who would just as soon see a new face wearing NASCAR's crown. Last week's frantic finish at Texas left a segment of NASCAR fans moaning that a sixth title in seven years for Johnson would be redundant.

"I really don't care [about the moaners]," said Johnson, who has won the last two Sprint Cup events, earning the maximum 48 points in each race. "I'm doing my job. I've worked my entire life to get to this point in my career.

"I can only assume that a lot of people were tired of seeing the King [Richard Petty] win. I know a lot of people were tired of seeing [Dale] Earnhardt win. I lived it, first-hand, watching Jeff Gordon go through that very same thing after his fourth championship. So, it's not that I'm in this unique situation. I'm not doing anything different than Gordon, Petty or Earnhardt. "

It does, Johnson says, beat any alternative.

"I'm awfully damn proud to be in the group of guys that had it go from cheers to boos," he says. "And when [fans] go back to cheering you again, [it means] you've stopped winning. So, I don't want the cheers. I'll keep the boos. That's fine."

With Johnson two races from that possible sixth championship, media has begun asking about his own perception of his place in NASCAR history. Only Petty and Earnhardt have won as many as seven Cup titles.

"I've been asked the question of where I want to be [regarded] and what mark I want to leave in the sport," Johnson said. "I want to be considered the best driver to ever sit in a stock car, and the best way of pulling that off is to win eight championships."

The driver leading the standings after 34 races has gone on to win the Chase six times. Only Johnson in 2011 and Tony Stewart last season have bucked that trend.