HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson is the king of mind games — he doesn’t fall victim to them — and he’s got five trophies as proof. He doesn’t let the pressure rattle him, and as a veteran of seven championship finales he knows how hard it can be to tune out the noise surrounding the title-deciding race. So Johnson was more than willing to poke, prod and remind Brad Keselowski just what’s at stake at Homestead- Miami Speedway this weekend.
Keselowski takes a 20-point lead over Johnson into Sunday’s finale, and needs only to finish 15th or better to win his first Sprint Cup title. It would give team owner Roger Penske his first championship at NASCAR’s top level in 29 years of competition.
So Johnson opened Thursday’s championship contenders’ news conference by referencing this season’s IndyCar championship, where Penske driver Will Power took a 17-point lead into the finale but crashed early and coughed away the title.
“It seemed like it was a layup race, and things can happen,” Johnson said.
Then he talked about the foolishness in assuming Keselowski will roll to a 15th-place finish Sunday and clinch the title.
“This garage area is tough, the weight of the race, I don’t care who you are, it’ll show up at some point in time and thoughts will run through your head and with all that being said, a 15th-place finish is not a layup for these guys,” Johnson said. “I have a little bit of stock in that. We’ll see how they respond.”
Keselowski sat square-jawed looking straight ahead, seemingly tuning out the attempt to get inside his head. The 28-year-old knows drivers have fallen victim to these games before, and has insisted during the entire 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship he wouldn’t repeat their mistakes.
A nervous Denny Hamlin sat between Johnson and Kevin Harvick two years ago, his legs shaking under the stage as his rivals lobbed barbs at him for almost an hour. Hamlin completed his collapse three days later, when Johnson rallied to win his fifth title.
Last season, Tony Stewart charmed his way through the news conference at an un-amused Carl Edwards’ expense. Stewart then snatched the championship away on a tie-breaker by winning the finale.
So Keselowski knew exactly what Johnson was up to on Thursday. “Certainly, he’s trying to apply pressure,” Keselowski said with a smirk. “Certainly, I don’t feel any.”
Keselowski has talked at length of late about the pressure he’s felt in his life. He came to Homestead in the Truck Series in 2004 and failed to make the race. In 2006, his family’s race team went broke trying to get him to the track. When he finally got his big break, at Chicagoland in the Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports in 2007, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. sent him out on a track he’d never seen before, telling him if he wrecked the car he wouldn’t get a chance to drive it next week.
“Now that was pressure,” Keselowski said. “Moments like that make this seem not so bad, and they also build up a level of confidence where I feel like this is quite a bit easier than those moments.”
Keselowski won six races for Earnhardt before moving on to Penske Racing and a Sprint Cup Series ride, and with a month to go in the season, Earnhardt predicted Keselowski would hang with Johnson all the way until the end.
“I don’t think he’s going to crack. I think he’s going to be hard to beat,” Earnhardt said. “I think he will be a tough competitor all the way through. Brad has been waiting on this opportunity all his life so I don’t expect him to crack under the pressure.”
Keselowski opened the Chase with a win at Chicago and picked up another victory at Dover to take control of the championship fight, but Johnson used consecutive wins at Martinsville and Texas to take a seven-point lead into Phoenix last weekend. A blown tire there caused Johnson to crash, and now Keselowski has a nice cushion that’s certainly giving him some peace of mind.
Johnson said the weekend is young.
“He may be very comfortable and calm now, it may not happen until he’s in the car, but at some point that magnitude hits,” Johnson said. “I’ve lived through it five times. That’s a turning moment, and we’ll see how he responds. This just isn’t any other race. This is the championship race, and there’s a lot that comes with that.”
Keselowski insists he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I want the pressure. That’s what I want. That’s what makes it worth something,” he said. “Without those questions, why am I doing that? I’m just driving a car in a circle. Without having a motivation, it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t strip away your motivation just to remove yourself from pressure because then you can’t justify your existence.”