The mind games have been at full speed for today’s AAA Texas 500.
Johnson has a two-point lead over Keselowski in the Chase for the Championship with three races remaining in the NASCAR season. Both drivers insist they don’t feel any pressure, but their actions prove otherwise.
“When you see it inside of your own walls, I’ve become immune of that over time,” Keselowski said. “The tracks are kind of our own walls, our own hangout. You just kind of glaze over it.”
Johnson won the pole with a 191.076 mph. Keselowski qualified eighth at 189.534. It shouldn’t take long for them to be running side-by-side.
“I like to go out and perform like I did last week; and send a message on Friday with a strong qualifying effort,” Johnson said. “If that doesn’t work out, make sure that I rebound and come back on Sunday with a strong performance.”
While most will be watching the battle between Johnson and Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne have a chance to put themselves into the championship picture. Bowyer, who will start fourth today (3 p.m., ESPN) is 24 points behind. Kahne, who starts 13th, is down by 29. Both feel like they have nothing to lose.
“We’ve got three races to go and everyone is still set on kill,” Bowyer said. “Certainly the focus is on that championship and those two guys (Johnson and Keselowski) are neck and neck. Certainly one little slip up on either one of their parts, then Kasey or I can be right there for the taking.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it really doesn’t matter if the focus is on me or not. We have fun and go about our business the way we’re going to go about our business and enjoy ourselves. It doesn’t matter.”
Johnson already has five Sprint Cup Series championships. He knows how to manage the pressure of the stretch drive. Keselowski, however, presents a unique challenge because he seems to be having fun with it all.
In their own ways, however, they know it’s only going to get tougher. For now, both have decided to handle the pressure by ignoring each other.
“There is the pressure to maintain, but I would much rather be leading the points than be anywhere else,” Johnson said. “Pressure shows up in a lot of different ways.”
“I’m just feeling good about everything,” Keselowski said.
Greg Biffle will start second today, while Kyle Busch is third. They have a different agenda for the 334-lap race – steal attention away from the playoffs.
“I think when you are a championship contender you do deserve the attention,” Busch said. “That’s fine and dandy; that’s the way it should be, but there needs to be a little bit given to the guys that still run well throughout the race.”
Martin Truex Jr. is fifth on the starting grid, followed by Joey Logano in sixth, Trevor Bayne in seventh, Keselowski in eighth, Carl Edwards in ninth and Matt Kenseth in 10th.
Texas has played a significant role in the championship. Johnson won here in 2007 en route to his second championship. Defending series champion Tony Stewart won here last year.
In 2005 Biffle lost the championship when his crew failed to tighten all the lug nuts during his final pit stop. After running in the top five all day, Biffle finished 20th and gave away 57 points. Two weeks later, Stewart won the championship by 35 points.
Johnson and Keselowski haven’t shown any weaknesses lately. Johnson won last week at Martinsville, Va., while Keselowski managed an eighth-place finish at a track he said presented him the most problems in the playoffs.
Now that it’s down to just two points and three races, both have withdrawn to their own little worlds.
“It’s supposed to be fun, but at the end of the day you race what’s on the race track and not what you say,” Keselowski said. “Over the course of time Jimmie has a proven track record of being able to back it up anything he says with results and he deserves respect for that. I probably don’t focus too much on those styles of things from Jimmie. Maybe I should focus more on it, but I do enjoy partaking on it on my own end.”
Now it’s Tony Gibson’s turn to get Danica Patrick up to speed.
Gibson will get a jump on the 2013 season by taking over as Patrick’s crew chief for today’s AAA Texas 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway. The move was supposed to be made during the offseason, but car owner Tony Stewart decided to create a working relationship in advance of Patrick’s first full season in the Sprint Cup Series.
“Well, there’s no pressure on us,” Gibson said. “I think the communication will get better and smoother.”
Gibson will move over from Ryan Newman’s team. His immediate challenge is to create a report with her, to understand exactly what she wants from her race car.
“You know I think that it’s not necessarily a specific person as much as it is their demeanor and their openness to listen and going down the paths that I go down sometimes in practice, and being ready to just kind of adapt what I say to the car and trust me, and want to be there,” Patrick said. “I think that may be one of the biggest things, when someone wants to be there it just gives me confidence and give me comfort. It makes me feel better.”
Patrick will start 32nd today.