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Keselowski-Johnson Rivalry Got Hot In Texas

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 13 2013

Jimmie Johnson talked about his late-season rivalry with Brad Keselowski this weekend at Texas. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – Jimmie Johnson says his NASCAR championship rivalry with Brad Keselowski  –heightened during last fall’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway – now has reached the point of recycling.

“Absolutely, I want to crush him,” Johnson said Friday at TMS, site of Saturday night’s NRA 500. “I want to lap him every race and I know he wants to do the same to me.”

That ‘s actually the respectful residue of November’s Sprint Cup event here, Race No. 8 in the 10-event Chase for the Championship. Johnson, the five-time series champion from Hendrick Motorsports, started that Sunday with a two-point lead over Keselowski, then driving a Dodge for team-owner Roger Penske.

Johnson outhustled Keselowski on a green-white-checkered finish to win an event featuring a late flurry of side-by-side racing, including brief contact between the protagonists on Lap 328 of the originally scheduled 334.

A caution on Lap 331 set up the final GWC dash, with Johnson taking the lead on the outside through Turns 1 and 2 of TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval en route to his second career victory here and 700th for Chevrolet in NASCAR competition.

Johnson’s margin of victory was just 0.808-seconds. But he exited Texas not only with a seven-point lead over Keselowski but also with a new level of respect for “Bad Brad,” who Johnson acknowledged “took it to the edge” without “wadding-up” either car.

Two weeks later, Keselowski wrapped-up his first Cup championship – and an emotional first for Mr. Penske – at Homestead-Miami Speedway by 39 points over Clint Bowyer of Michael Waltrip Racing. Johnson finished third

Brad Keselowski had a 'defining moment' at Texas last year. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

in the final standings, 40 points behind Keselowski.

Six races into the 2013 season with the new Gen-6 Ford Fusion, Keselowski admitted this rivalry thing with Johnson being floated by the media has more-or-less morphed into a one-on-one.

“It feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it?” said Keselowski, who trails championship leader Johnson by six points (231-225) heading into tonight’s 334-lap/501-mile event. “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.”

The series’ only two-time winner thus far, including last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, Johnson said it’s not fair to limit the scope of this season to himself and Keselowski and his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford.

“But it wouldn’t surprise me if it does (play-out as such),” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Dover White Chevrolet SS. “I expect a lot out of that No. 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 (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) and Brad have is something like Chad (Knaus) and I have had. Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon had. You can go down through the list of the great pairings of driver/crew chiefs.

“I absolutely expect him to be there in it, but the garage area is full of a lot of very competitive drivers and crew chiefs. It wouldn’t necessarily be fair to say it’s a No. 48/No. 2 thing. But again, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what it came down to.”

Keselowski’s aggressive driving style and outspoken personality found him clashing early and often in his Cup career with Carl Edwards of Roush Fenway Racing. Meanwhile, as Johnson and Knaus compiled their historic run of five consecutive titles, both became targets of their garage area peers – including teammate, car co-owner and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon – as well as fans who had grown increasingly weary of watching JJ stroll into Victory Lane, USA. Safe to say, Jimmie knows about rivalries.

“I think rivalries are good,” Johnson said. “That’s the fine line that sports walk. Unfortunately, regardless of sport if it’s someone charging the mound to drivers charging other drivers – that draws a lot more attention to whatever sport it is. There are a small percentage of people that like that and they want to see punches thrown, but I think in general fans like rivalries. We all thrive for that moment. That’s kind of a line we walk and where the wave crashes. We want rivalries, we want heated emotions and we want door-banging.

“I don’t think the fans want a sterile environment, they want some trash-talking. That’s the part we want, but we don’t want broken backs. We don’t want drivers injured, issues like that. It’s a fine line that our sport walks and all sports walk.”

That said, Johnson characterized his on-track relationship with Keselowski along the lines of several Cup drivers who know how to race hard-and-harder.

“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. I feel that way about others, but I will get out and I will have a beer with him. I will get out and shake his hand and congratulate him for a win, but in the heat of the moment I want to crush him. I don’t want bad things to happen to him, but I absolutely have that competitive spirit and want to crush him.”

Johnson reiterated how much he enjoyed the closing laps of November’s race, which resulted in his 22nd Chase victory and the 60th of a career now in its 12th full season with car-owners Rick Hendrick and Sir Jeff.

“Yeah, it was awesome,” said Johnson, a 37-year-old native of El Cajon, Calif. “Thought I was going to get turned around in (Turn) 1 and 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 and I smiled. That’s just good, hard racing.

“I have that great relationship with quite a few guys. There’s others that you get around that maybe don’t have a lot of experience racing for a win so you’re not sure how they are 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. With Brad, I put Brad in that category of racing – Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and guys that I really trust and don’t even think about it – just racing for the win.”

Kyle Busch qualified on the Coors Light Pole Friday afternoon for the season’s first primetime night race via a Cup-record lap of 196.299 mph in the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing. Johnson will start seventh after a hot lap at 194.503 mph, while Keselowski is slotted 16th at 193.431 mph.

In 19 career starts at “The Great American Speedway,” Johnson has logged victories in the fall races in 2007 and 2012, five runnerup finishes, one third-place result and 443 laps-led – including a combined 324 in both 2012 events. Keselowski’s best result in nine starts at TMS was his second to JJ last fall. Keselowski has led a combined 109 laps, including 75 in November.

Keselowski, whose best finish this season has been a pair of thirds, has compiled nine Cup wins in three full seasons with “The Captain.” In many respects, the race here with Johnson last fall helped propel him to that first championship.

“I would say it would be a ‘defining moment’ if we had won the race,” said Keselowski, who made his first career Cup start at TMS in November 2008. “I think it was a defining moment for me knowing that we could run competitively at tracks others didn’t feel like we could. I felt like we could. Coming back here, while we might not have gotten the win we wanted last fall, I feel like we can get it done this spring.

“Our cars have been very strong. Last week (sixth at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway) was a bit disappointing and we weren’t quite as fast as we have been the weeks before. But to have a sixth-place run and be disappointed shows really just how far this team has come and how competitive we can be on a weekly basis.”

Keselowski downplayed the notion that he is racing with a target on his back as the reigning – and sometimes off-the-wall – champion.

“I’m not really a target guy. I don’t feel like one,” said Keselowski, a 29-year-old native of Rochester Hills, Mich. “The great thing about a new season is everyone starts out fresh and feels they can be the guy to beat and are racing the whole field and not just you.

“Toward the end of the season as the Chase shapes out and the field dwindles to certain guys that have been strong all season I think you can feel more of that, but at the start of the year everyone feels like they can win races and win the championship. They want to beat everyone, not just me.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 13 2013
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