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Brad Keselowski's biggest hurdle to NASCAR title is Jimmie Johnson

Keselowski is seven points behind the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion heading into the final two races of the playoff. Johnson is a four-time winner at Phoenix, the site of Sunday's AdvoCare 500.

November 08, 2012|By Jim Peltz
  • Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, clips a tire carrier from the #10 Chevrolet, driven by Danica Patrick, as he leaves his pit stall during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 4, 2012.
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, clips a tire carrier… (Jonathan Ferrey / Getty…)

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Brad Keselowski not only is a talented NASCAR driver, he's also confident, aggressive and self-assured.

Good thing, because standing between Keselowski and his first Sprint Cup Series championship is perhaps the most daunting challenge he could face: Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson, seeking a remarkable sixth Cup title in the last seven years, has a seven-point lead over Keselowski in the title standings with two races left, starting with Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Realistically speaking, they're the only two drivers who still have a shot at the title among the 12 drivers in NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup playoff.

Clint Bowyer is 36 points behind Johnson in third, a hurdle Bowyer is unlikely to clear with only two races remaining. A driver can earn up to 48 points in a single race.

It's not just that Johnson already has five Sprint Cup trophies — which he won in consecutive years from 2006 through 2010 — that should give Keselowski pause. Johnson also has a habit of denting his contenders' chances in the Arizona desert.

Johnson is a four-time winner at PIR and, overall, the Hendrick Motorsports driver repeatedly has finished well enough in the fall race there to set up his title coronation the next week in the season finale at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway.

Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin are among the drivers in recent years who had high hopes for a championship going into the Phoenix race, only to leave with the momentum on Johnson's side.

And this year Johnson, 37, already has momentum after victories in the last two races, at Martinsville, Va., and Texas.

But Keselowski, who drives for Penske Racing, is unmoved by history or Johnson's record, as was evident when he raced Johnson side by side in the final laps at Texas before Johnson pulled ahead.

"My goal is to go to the next two races and win," Keselowski said. "We control our own destiny if we do that."

Keselowski, 28, has not won in six previous Cup starts at PIR, though his best finish was fifth when the series raced there in March. "We had a great run in the spring," he said. "I know that we have the cars and the team to do it."

Johnson's last win at PIR came in 2009, before the quirky track with the dogleg on the backstretch was repaved and slightly reconfigured last year.

Keselowski and Johnson both have won five times this season, including two wins each in the Chase.

But Johnson is hardly infallible. He has failed to finish five races this season — the most among the Chase drivers — because of wrecks or other problems.

Johnson and his team "do a great job of managing their mistakes," Keselowski said, "but they still make them, just like we do."

Regardless, Johnson said he'll adopt the same attitude he had while winning his five titles.

"We're still going to go into Phoenix and act as if we're behind," he said after winning the Texas race. "Seven points is nothing to feel comfortable about."

Qualifying to set the race's 43-car field is Friday. The track also will host a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race Friday night and a NASCAR Nationwide Series race Saturday.

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