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Two To Go: Chase Is Taking On A Testy Sizzle

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 7 2012

The Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson rivalry is becoming a bit heated. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – A line of respect between Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson was drawn on Lap 327 of Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, where “Bad Brad” reiterated that as NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup begins to heat-up, he won’t back down.

Befitting his status as five-time Cup champion, Johnson is OK with that.

“To his credit, he did a nice job of getting right to the edge, and we brought home race cars,” said Johnson, who passed Keselowski during Sunday’s green-white-checkered flag restart en route to his fifth victory of 2012 and second straight. “We weren’t wadded-up and looking like a bunch of fools over there, handing the No. 5 (of Kasey Kahne) and No. 15 (of Clint Bowyer) a big gift. So that’s a good thing.”

The overtime finish and events leading up to it clearly bode well for the season’s final two races, beginning with Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Johnson stretched his lead over Keselowski from two to seven points, with third-place Bowyer now 36 points out and on the fade.

But in the spirit of the dramatic 2011 Chase points squabble decided via a tiebreaker between eventual champion Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, Jimmie vs. Brad has taken on a testy sizzle.

“I raced hard, and I’m sure someone would say ‘dirty,’ ” said Keselowski, again referring to Lap 327. “Hell, anytime you run close to certain guys you’re racing them ‘dirty,’ according to some people. But I raced hard, and we both came back around, so there’s something to be said for that.”

Jimmie Johnson lost paint, not his head, in Texas. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

Recall that race-leader Keselowski – who had taken only right-side tires during a yellow-flag pit stop on Lap 312 – wiggled and banged fenders with Johnson as they exited Turn 4 of TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval on the restart following the race’s eighth caution.

“I knew he was serious about the race lead prior to that, and that took it to a new level,” said Johnson, who caught his breath and drew up alongside Keselowski during the ninth caution period on Lap 331. “Yeah, I just pointed at him. Just wanted him to use his head. There is no sense in taking us both out in the process. If he was taking me out, you can count on the fact that I would have been on the gas and trying to take him with me. You know, it just doesn’t need to come down to that.

“Brad, also, after the race, came into Victory Lane and shook my hand. The cool thing is we walked right up to that line – got right to the edge – and then it stopped. He showed a very classy move coming into Victory Lane and shaking my hand afterwards, too.”

Keselowski recounted during his post-race presser that his racing line, which was pushing Johnson high and toward the marbles in Turn 4 and into the quadoval, felt like a wreck in the making. If so, the blame would have been his for opting for that two-tire strategy.

“That was something that I thought was the right way to go,” said Keselowski, adding he and crew chief Paul Wolfe agreed on the gamble. “I might have poked him a little bit to do it, but we still made it together. I thought it was the right thing to do. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. Who know? But it was worth a shot. Obviously, four tires are going to be better than two, but it’s my job to find a way to win the race, and I didn’t do that.”

Certainly, Keselowski said, he wasn’t looking to become the guy who wrecked Mr. Five-Time during the closing laps at TMS. “He might not believe that, but that’s just not the way you want to run a race and not the way I want

Brad Keselowski says he races hard, but cleanly. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

to win a championship,” said Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger fielded by Penske Racing. “I was lucky to survive that one.”

Chad Knaus, robotic crew chief of Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Impala, is the undisputed master of game-planning for the 10-race Chase format. Knaus has guided Johnson to all 22 of his Chase-record victories and those five titles at Hendrick Motorsports.

“Everybody thinks once you get to the Chase you’ve got to ramp everything up,” Knaus said. “Being part of the No. 48 car, you’re expected to win every single week, so we really can’t prepare any differently. Once we get to the Chase, we really can’t do any more. We’re really operating in our comfort zone, where I think what happens to a lot of other teams, it takes them out of their comfort zone. They try to do more. They try to push that further. They do things outside the norm. I think that’s where usually people get in trouble.”

Conversely, Knaus acknowledged that Wolfe and Keselowski quickly have narrowed the experience gap. “Oh yeah, they’ve done a good job,” Knaus said. “You have to realize that’s Penske Racing. It’s not like it’s a slouch team. Those guys have been building good cars for a long time. You look at Kurt Busch (who) has gone very fast in that race car. There have been a lot of great drivers in that race car (notably 1989 Cup champion Rusty Wallace), and they’ve always run competitively.

“I think that team is more than prepared to do it. I think Paul’s a great crew chief and Brad is a really good driver. So I think they’ll be there through the end. They’ll be there for years to come, and that’s good. That’s a good thing. We need that.”

Keselowski, who has held the Chase points lead after five of eight events, admitted it’s been a bit disheartening to race his guts out…only to wind up watching JJ as he rumbles into Victory Lane.

“It don’t feel good, but there is a part of you that just feels like you’re first-in-class,” Keselowski said. “I’m confident that we can execute at a high level. I’m confident that the way it’s worked over the last three weeks…we haven’t caught good breaks or bad breaks and he’s caught several really good ones. I’m confident that that will come back around and when it does we’ll change these few seconds and fifths or whatever they are over the last few weeks into wins.

“I feel that’s bound to happen over the next two weeks, and we have the team to pull it off. I also feel the way the points are right now we still control our own destiny, which is if we win the race, we get the points lead. So that’s about all you can ask for.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 7 2012
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