NASCAR: Johnson using experience, mind games to get running start on Keselowski
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Jimmie Johnson wasn’t being flippant when he mentioned the IndyCar Series season finale three times Thursday afternoon at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
He knew Brad Keselowski was sitting three feet away, and he wanted to make sure Keselowski got the message that anything can happen when they race for the Sprint Cup Series championship on Sunday.
Will Power had a comfortable 17-point lead going into the IndyCar race at Fontana, Calif., but he crashed early and wound up losing the title to Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Keselowski has a 20-point lead before the Ford EcoBoost 400, which means all he has to do is finish no worse than 15th to win the first Spring Cup championship for legendary car owner Roger Penske.
“We saw what happened in IndyCars,” Johnson said. “That seemed like a lay-up, too.”
Keselowski and Johnson are the only two drivers remaining in the Chase for the Championship with a mathematical chance to win the title. Johnson’s trying to win his sixth championship in seven years; Keselowski is trying to win his first.
Johnson was just as quick to remind the 28-year-old driver that he has experience in a winner-take-all finale.
And he wondered aloud if Keselowski would be able to handle the pressure.
For the most part, Keselowski tried to ignore most of Johnson’s constant needling.
“For us, it’s about focusing on what we need to do,” he said. “If we do that, things will work their way out.
“I haven’t crushed a lot of numbers, but I do know what kind of fuel mileage we can get. Looking at the trends and everything else like that is just a distraction.”
The two made their final appearances in front of the media on Thursday, a full day before they hit the track today for practice and qualifying.
The main event is Sunday at 3 p.m. (ESPN).
Since they will be parked next to each other in the garage are, Johnson will have other opportunities to remind Keselowski of what’s ahead.
“There’s a line to racing hard and we’ve both prove we’re willing to race to that line,” Johnson said. “But it’s not my style to drive through him to win it. But I will race him hard.”
And then there’s the memory of the IndyCar final race. Power, who also drives for Penske, has crashed in the season-finale in each of the last three years to lose grip of a points lead – and the championship.
“At some point, the magnitude hits,” Johnson said. “I’ve lived through it five times. I’ll be happy to point out some of the moments. There will be a moment when it all hits everyone, from Brad to the guys changing tires.
“Brad, if you want to call me later and remind you of other points, I can.”
There are other mind games being played in the garage this weekend. The Camping World Truck and Nationwide series also are down to their finale races, too.
James Buescher has an 11-point lead over Timothy Peters and 12 points over Ty Dillon in tonight’s truck series finale.
“If I don’t see them in the windshield, I know they’re behind me,” Buescher said. “If we think too much about what everyone else is doing, we’ll make mistakes.”
“I like to be the one doing the chasing,” Peters said.
The Ford EcoBoost 200 will start at 8 p.m. (SPEED).
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has a comfortable 20-point lead over Elliott Sadler, while Austin Dillon is mathematically alive with a 25-point deficit.
Dillon was the one taking jabs at his competition.
“I hope they door-slam each other coming off (Turn) 4 and I make it through the smoke,” he said. “I want to know why they don’t remember Richmond and Bristol.”
Stenhouse and Sadler had a couple run-ins earlier this year. Dillon said he will continue to remind them of it until the Nationwide Series is settled on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. (ESPN2).