Monster. What monster? Unless you’re talking Halloween, for Jimmie Johnson Dover’s mythical one-“Miles” oval serves as his killer assistant to help slay Sprint Cup Chase competition. The numbers tell a tale of terror, not for him but everyone else; leading 2,318 career laps on the concrete, more than at any other facility success is not only expected but routine. Adding a fourth-place finish Sunday, his ninth top-10 result in NASCAR’s last ten trips out to Delaware I’d say fear is the last adjective that crosses his mind while driving.
So why did Mr. Five-Time, of all people leave Dover with the descriptors “afraid” and “apprehensive” instead of a typical A+? Three races in to a 2012 postseason quickly coming into focus, that answer is simple: Brad Keselowski equals J.J. Chase kryptonite.
And NASCAR’s new Superman is strengthening.
The driver of the No. 2 Dodge for Penske Racing shined on Sunday, using fuel mileage and some crafty strategy by crew chief Paul Wolfe to capture his second victory in three 2012 Chase attempts. The way in which he did it wasn’t flashy; no one in the stands goes “oooo” and “ahhh” over someone slowing down up front to squeeze a little extra Sunoco out of their tank. Instead, those gasps were reserved for the fact the challenger beat the favorite at his own game, taking control at a track where Victory Lane takes advance RSVPs for anyone associated with the No. 48.
“Everybody said coming to Dover this was going to be our weakness,” Keselowski claimed late Sunday. “I didn’t believe it. We felt like we could come here to win.”
More importantly, chief rival Johnson didn’t come here to lose. The last three seasons, during the Fall race at Dover he’d finished first, first and second, allowing him to gain significant ground in the standings. Back in 2005, he leaped atop the Cup championship with perhaps his finest Dover performance, charging from 53 points out of the lead under the old format.
That’s why back at the No. 48 shop, while they won’t admit it to the media Monday will be spent hanging their heads and kicking themselves. Fourth, on this day might as well been as good as 40th; only in 2004, after a ho-hum 10th-place result has Johnson, lost the amount of ground in the championship after Dover Brad Keselowski took from them.
“It just didn’t unfold like a normal race here,” claimed Johnson, whose struggles to make fuel mileage, storybook endings have been well documented. As Keselowski could run to the finish at full speed, Knaus had to instruct his driver to back way, way down, to the point NASCAR at one point admonished the No. 48 to pick up the pace or be black flagged for not making minimum speed requirements. When you choose to run like a snail, 80 percent throttle it’s easy for the challenger to blow by and snatch the trophy you feel you should have won. Unfortunately for a sport looking to build postseason momentum, Keselowski’s pass for what would turn out to be the win was like taking candy from a baby, leaving little short-term excitement for the fans but a whole lot of surprise over the final outcome.
“I wish we could have raced for it,” Johnson said. “But we’re not very good at fuel mileage races. So when I heard that (he had to slow down on the radio), I’m like man, we’re in big trouble.”
Those words also apply to what’s shaping up to be a mano-e-mano battle ahead (barring a Denny Hamlin miracle resurgence). The Chase’s odds-on favorite now sits five points behind Keselowski, a manageable deficit on paper with seven races left yet increasingly more difficult to overcome. Assuming the two hold serve at Talladega, the postseason version of Russian Roulette the remaining tracks on the schedule clearly favor Johnson, both in experience and on-track results. But who’s to say Keselowski won’t keep shooting bullets, both at his rival and the so-so numbers he’s posted at each remaining facility? Entering Sunday, his Dover finishes with Penske were a blasé 18th, 22nd, 13th, 20th, and 12th. With just two career laps led, it seemed a reasonable goal Sunday would have been 10th, keep the No. 48 within sight and fight the championship battle elsewhere.
But Keselowski didn’t do that; instead, he went for the jugular, fighting hard to punch Johnson right in the gut of his best track. Who’s to say that Charlotte, where he has one top-5 finish in six career starts (versus Johnson’s six career victories) won’t turn out the same way? Once David slays Goliath once, confidence grows to the point where anything is possible. Johnson is on the record as “playing it safe” this Chase, looking to collect top-3 finishes the way Carl Edwards did last season. Keselowski, of course is going for the hardware, winning in bunches the way Tony Stewart sliced through last year’s Chase. Which one of the two did you think came out on top last November? (Hint: Carl Edwards doesn’t have a title to his name yet.)
Three races in, some might say Keselowski gets the upper hand now; just don’t expect the driver to think that way in public. When placed in the role of the underdog, he smartly recognizes the way to keep that 1-2 punch flowing is to never let his team know they’re on the verge of controlling their own destiny.
“By no means do I feel like we’re the favorite,” he explained Sunday. “Certainly, we’re not the underdog probably at this point.”
“But I think there’s so much racing to go, so many opportunities for things to go wrong – or right – for anyone out there, that it’s way too early to point those fingers and say those things.”
That’s as close as you’ll get to Keselowski admitting the way the No. 48 team has been forced to embrace a challenge. But in reality, smart driving, solid strategy, and a continued commitment by this Penske program in the face of Dodge’s impending departure has created a scenario most pundits didn’t think possible.
This title may no longer be Jimmie Johnson’s to lose. Instead, he’s going to have to fight like hell to win it; and even then, there’s no guarantee the man in front of him’s going to give up the ghost.
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