FOX Sports Exclusive
JJ very familiar with current situation
The racing gods certainly have a bizarre sense of humor.
One year after Jimmie Johnson’s unsuccessful quest for a “Six-Pack,” the five-time champion finds himself once again entering Phoenix International Raceway – the penultimate track in the Chase for the Sprint Cup – carrying the momentum from a win in Texas and with a seven-point lead in the standings over second place.
The only difference? Last year Johnson was battling Brad Keselowski – a then-28-year-old, third-season Cup contender with nine career victories from a two-car team that had never won a title in NASCAR’s top division.
This time he’s facing Matt Kenseth. At 41, Kenseth’s body of work over the past 14 seasons includes 31 wins – with a career-high seven this season – and a one-victory 2003 Cup title run that pundits credit as the catalyst for the creation of the Chase.
Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus doesn’t see a big difference in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports’ challenge this season. But Knaus acknowledged after last Sunday’s victory that he finds Kenseth a more intimidating opponent than Keselowski.
“Matt, just from his personality standpoint, is a little more controlled,” Knaus quipped. “He's a little more mature. He's been in the sport for a long time. I think he's just a little more even keel, so that makes him a little more challenging to get off-kilter, off-rocker, so we'll have to see how it shakes the outcome in Phoenix.”
Keselowski says he’ll give Knaus “the benefit of the doubt but believes the veteran crew chief should concentrate on respecting Kenseth’s accomplishments and “not disrespecting” Keselowski.
And perhaps Knaus is simply bitter that it was Keselowski’s off-kilter approach that allowed the No. 2 Penske Racing crew to rattle the cage of the five-time championship team. The cat-and-mouse games Keselowski played in practice and the pressure he exerted on Johnson changed the complexion of the Phoenix race.
“That team’s success comes from almost the ‘gosh, golly-gee approach of not racing hard and just beating you on pure speed, which has been their traditional advantage,” Keselowski said of the No. 48 team. “For them, I wouldn’t want to have to race somebody that’s going to race me hard because that’s not their wheelhouse. I think that was one of our strengths last year.
“If I was going to give Matt a piece of advice I’d say use the (crap) out of him. Race him hard because that’s his weakness. But Matt has to race the way he wants to race. … I thought we ran him really hard at Texas and again here at Phoenix, maybe not so much in the race but definitely in practice. … There were some practice sessions where I got by him, ran him hard and had a lot of fun with it.
“And in the race, he drove the car too hard until he blew out a tire. You could look at it and say it was a tire failure or whatever, but those in the garage that know how a car works know that it was reaching too hard and a failure was caused from that. I feel quite confident of that, and that is that group’s weakness.”
Keselowski had the advantage of having nothing to lose when battling Johnson. He identified Johnson’s weakness and capitalized on the situation. But is Kenseth too honorable to race Johnson that way?
“I’ve seen Matt race pretty hard, but he seems to have a different relationship with Jimmie than some of the other guys that I’ve seen him race hard with,” Keselowski said. “So it would be hard for me to answer.”
Despite the caliber of the No. 48 team – even its dominance over the other three Hendrick squads – Keselowski still believes he can “heads up” beat Johnson. He takes pride in being one of the two drivers who thwarted Johnson’s run toward a sixth championship.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” Keselowski said. “Obviously, that team is immune to the cycles that everyone else is. To beat them is a very large accomplishment in the sport. Whether it was Tony (Stewart) the year before me and then myself, they’re just a great team. It takes a very clutch effort to beat them, and I’m proud that we were able to deliver that last year.”
Keselowski proved it can be done. His final advice to Kenseth?
“Run the race and go win it,” Keselowski said. “You still control your own destiny. The way the points work, you control your own destiny. All he has to do is win. That’s all he has to think about. It’s that simple. Go out there and win, the rest takes care of itself.”