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Johnson Pulls Out A New Weapon In Title Chase

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, November 16 2012

Title-chasers Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson competed on stage during Thursday's press conference in Miami. They'll compete on the track on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Down 20 points to a toaster-coil hot but inexperienced challenger with just 400 miles to go before the 2012 Sprint Cup championship is decided, Jimmie Johnson introduced psychological warfare into the fight on media day.

No, he didn’t go U.S. vs. Noriega by blaring loud rock music at Brad Keselowski’s hotel, but he did turn up the collar-tightening heat by reminding his young counterpart that, gee, Sunday’s season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway means, basically, everything the kid has ever dreamed about.

“Yeah,” Johnson said during his media day appearance in South Florida, “you definitely want to plant a seed, but the thing that I know is regardless of the prodding or poking I can do, that moment is coming. The ‘aha moment’ comes for everybody that’s in that championship battle.”

And by including the word “everybody”, Johnson was also dragging Keselowski’s Penske Racing crew into the mind game.

“It’s easy right now to focus on just the drivers because we’re here with the mics and doing this whole press conference,” Johnson said. “But every guy that goes over the wall to perform the pit stops can have that moment and will have that moment. Every guy turning a screw, a nut, putting fuel in the car, crew chiefing the race, engineering the race, everybody has the same thing on their mind. You’re protecting something. It is something we have all worked for our whole lives to get to this point. It is a huge, huge moment.

“So regardless of what I say or needling I can do, those moments are going to show up, and if I can plant that seed and help spur that moment along, then cool. But I’m not – I didn’t come in here with a huge agenda today thinking that I was going to make a difference in that because I know those moments are going to come. I’ve been there.”

Five times Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports people have come away from “there” as champions.

No, he said, no way the waters are as roily for him and the No. 48 as they are for a new guy driving for an organization that has yet to win a NASCAR championship of any kind.

“For whatever reason,” Johnson said, “I’m at peace with my situation. I mean, I don’t want to be in this situation, but I am strangely optimistic, and I can’t explain why. There’s just feelings that people have, and I’ll see if this feeling comes true Sunday evening.”

Keselowski’s lead may be 20 points, which means if he finishes 17th or better Sunday, he’s your champion. That is, Keselowski will knock Johnson off unless he or his team either screws up themselves or has some other third party screw them up.

Johnson knows that. And, most of all, he wants the No. 2 team to know that as well.

“The truth of it is there’s 20 points, 20 positions on the track,” Johnson said as he renewed his attack on the Penske team’s nerves. “If it was tighter there would probably be more concern, but the best part, and it came to me during the press conference, to help spur along any thoughts and to help distract the 2 team and especially Brad and his mindset, the questions that come and the focus, that helps the magnitude of this situation come along and brings that to the forefront of his mind quicker and quicker.

“I was smiling to hear family questions asked, and what this might mean and all that, because it’s very easy in your controlled environment to ignore all of those thoughts. But when you’re in these situations you want to know, the fans want to know, those questions come out, and it makes you think about things that you don’t want to think about or talk about and maybe haven’t yet because why would you. As a racer you don’t want to assume things.

“I was enjoying the questions and I enjoy the fact the spotlight is over there. In fact, what the hell are you all doing over here? Get over there (to Keselowski’s team) and ask some questions.”

Keselowski was right next to Johnson when all of this was being said. How were Keselowski’s psychological deflector shields holding up to the assault?

He did show a crack by taking jab at the media and fellow driver Tony Stewart, who clearly ruffled Keselowski’s hairdo with a crack about aggressive driving a couple weeks ago.

But then he re-composed. Or so it appeared.

“I think it comes from the people that you’re surrounded by and how comfortable they are,” Keselowski said, “and that comes into your own world, and I can tell you that the group that I have and that I’m surrounded by, whether it’s in my personal life or professional life, they’re not known for being very rattled in these opportunities, in these positions, and I think that’s probably the biggest thing that you can do is be surrounded by people that share that same passion that you have but also put out a level of calmness that is somewhat addictive.

“I feel like if you look at Paul (Wolfe, his crew chief), Paul is pretty stone-faced, and that’s his style. He’s not a real emotional guy, and certainly you cue off of that, just like Jimmie was saying he does with Chad (Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief), and there’s other guys. You look at Roger, Roger is the same way. You’re not going to see Roger showing a bunch of emotion even if we do win it. He’s going to be very stoic, as he always is, which is great.

“And my family life, personal life is the same way, whether it’s my dad or mom, when they have their successes, they’re certainly very passionate and happy for them, but they’re also very quiet and very capable of moving forward and looking forward to not get too caught up in the moment.

“For me I guess the best way to answer is I’m relying on the people I’m surrounded by.”

While Johnson is being pretty obvious in his attempts to wedge psychology into the dialogue, he also knows getting into Keselowski’s head will represent his best shot at overcoming the tangible disadvantage he is facing this weekend.

Twenty points is a lot of points – unless an unforced error sends the No. 2 team into the pits, garages or scramble mode.

Johnson is simply attempting to force that unforced error.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, November 16 2012
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