Johnson won an unprecedented five consecutive Sprint Cup championships before that streak ended last year. Keselowski is wrapping up only his third full season at NASCAR’s highest level and should have plenty more title chances.
They arrived at Texas with Johnson leading Keselowski in the championship chase by a slim two points with three races to go. They race today on the 1½-mile high-banked track where Johnson has 13 top-10 finishes in 18 starts with a win five falls ago, and where Keselowski has never finished better than 14th.
How would Earnhardt handicap the championship chase between his current Hendrick Motorsports teammate in the No. 48 Chevrolet and the friend who once drove his Nationwide Series car to consecutive third-place season finishes in 2008-09?
“Obviously, I want to see Jimmie win the championship between the two,” Earnhardt said. “But I’m really happy for Brad to be experiencing the season he has had. He has earned it. ... He is a great asset to the sport for years to go. He’s going to have a lot more opportunities aside from this one; he is going to have a lot of opportunities to win championships.”
The 28-year-old Keselowski agrees there should be plenty of other chances, but the driver of Roger Penske’s No. 2 Dodge quickly responded with a slight chuckle: “That doesn’t mean that I want to waste them,” he said.
Keselowski is trying to get the first Sprint Cup championship for Penske, who has 15 Indianapolis 500 victories and 23 national titles in different series. That includes Keselowski’s Nationwide championship in 2010 after moving from Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports, a stint during which he also ran nine Sprint Cup races for Hendrick.
“He was pretty new in the sport, eager and talented. He showed a lot of speed, a lot of potential,” Johnson said. “My relationship with Brad has really been at the track or racing-related. We haven’t had a chance to hang out too much off the track. For the longest time, he hasn’t been old enough to have a beer, so it has been hard to hang out too much.”
While he’s not really that young, Keselowski remembers first meeting Johnson when they were both running a Nationwide race for JR Motorsports in North Carolina late in the 2008 season.
During one of two rain delays that night, Keselowski went to Johnson for some advice — “because he was out-running me” — and Keselowski felt he could spin out at any time. Johnson told him to slow down and take it easy, and make sure to finish the race.
“We went back green and there was a wreck and I slowed down to see who it was. I came back around and it was Jimmie,” Keselowski said. “And that was my first real racing memory of him. It was him telling me to slow down and not wreck on my own. And that happened.”
While they have laughed about that in the past, Keselowski said he has a big appreciation for all that Johnson has done “and obviously the championships that he’s won, and his approach.”
Without some really strange and unexpected things happening, Johnson and Keselowski are set for a two-man chase for the title much like Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards last season.
Clint Bowyer (26 points behind Johnson) and Kasey Kahne (29 back) are the next-closest drivers in the chase. Fifth-place Denny Hamlin (49 back) conceded his title chances were done after an electrical problem that sent him to a 33rd-place finish last weekend at Martinsville.
“I guess in some respects, you can look at two guys and a two-guy breakaway right now, but I’m not putting too much stock in that,” Johnson said. “A mid-pack finish for myself and Brad will bring everybody back into it and that’s not too big of a margin in my eyes. So, I’m still very focused in getting as many points as possible and trying to win the races.”
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, his Hendrick teammate and a co-owner of Johnson’s car, said there’s just no way to predict the unexpected things like what happened to Hamlin. But, based on flat-out speed and performance, he said the edge certainly goes to Johnson.
“Brad has put up a good fight. If you’re putting money down on it, it’s hard to go against that No. 48 team,” Gordon said. “They’re just so rock-solid at so many different tracks. They’ve won five championships so it’s not like they’re nervous. They’re pretty relaxed and in a comfort zone and it’s really nothing to lose. They’ve won five championships and they’re in great position.”