AVONDALE, Ariz. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is Jimmie Johnson's teammate and Brad Keselowski's former boss, so who does Earnhardt see winning this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup?
"I think Jimmie is going to win it" for a sixth championship, Earnhardt said Friday. Johnson has "great equipment . . . one of the best crew chiefs in the business" in Chad Knaus, and Johnson "is one of the best drivers in the business."
"It's going to be hard to beat those guys," Earnhardt said.
Johnson has a seven-point lead over Keselowski in the title standings with two races left: Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway and the season finale a week later at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway.
Keselowski will start 14th in Sunday's race after qualifying Friday with an average speed of 136.622 mph on the one-mile PIR oval; Johnson qualified 24th at 135.440 mph.
Kyle Busch won the pole position with a lap of 138.766 mph that set the track qualifying record, breaking the mark of 137.279 mph set by Carl Edwards in February 2011.
Earnhardt, who like Johnson drives for Hendrick Motorsports, also is among the 12 drivers competing in NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup playoff.
But Earnhardt's title hopes were dashed earlier in the Chase when he was forced to sit out two races because of a concussion.
Earnhardt also is a co-owner of JR Motorsports, where Keselowski was a driver in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series before Keselowski moved up to the Cup series full time in 2010 with Penske Racing.
Now, "I'm competing against him," Earnhardt said of Keselowski, "but we have a good friendship and a good amount of respect for each other. He races really, really hard."
Which is why Johnson said he expects their title fight to remain close.
"I would assume that we would be right there running nose to tail once again when the checkered flag falls on Sunday," Johnson said.
Johnson also said other drivers so far have raced cleanly against the two championship contenders. "There has been a lot of respectful driving around Brad and I on the race track," he said.
Tony Stewart, who won the title last year to break Johnson's streak of five consecutive Cup titles, said the battle between Johnson and Keselowski remained unpredictable.
"It's way too close to try to pick anybody," said Stewart, who also co-owns his Stewart-Haas Racing team.
Harvick to Stewart-Haas?
Kevin Harvick plans to leave Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas in 2014, ESPN reported, citing unidentified sources.
"When we have something to tell you guys, we'll tell you," Stewart told reporters, and Harvick likewise said he would comment later on his 2014 plans.