The path has been laid for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title to be decided between just two drivers in the last three weeks as five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and first-time serious contender Brad Keselowski look to take it to the wire with just two points separating them from each other and more than 25 now between them and the rest of the pack. (Yes, there is the distinct possibility of disaster striking one or both of them in the last three races, but odds are, one of the two is going to hoist that silver trophy in less than three weeks.) Last year’s title was a similarly close one between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, and like that one this battle is one that seems, on the surface, to be between two drivers who are almost polar opposites in most ways.
That makes fans, media, and NASCAR grin from ear to ear, because it sets up a perfect hero vs. villain scenario: The smooth, unflappable, classy champion vs. the aggressive, cocky bigmouth who pops off at the mouth about anything and everything, that he mostly knows nothing about. Or, if you prefer, the outspoken, brash young take-no-prisoners talent vs. the pompous, vanilla, overrated Chase-only champion who was fed with a silver spoon and can’t win without his genius cheater crew chief. Either way. The mere fact that they’re totally different makes everyone happy.
The only problem with this scenario? They aren’t really that different. In fact, sometimes the two could each look into a mirror and see the other looking back at him with steely, hungry eyes.
No, really. While on the surface, Johnson and Keselowski are very different, as the title comes down to the wire, it becomes apparent that underneath, they march to a very similar tune. Both are focused, intense. But most drivers are focused and intense-what sets Keselowski and Johnson apart is the singular degree to which both zero in on what it is they want. If a win is possible any given week, getting either of them to back down is like trying to distract a pit bull. There are drivers who, if stared down long enough and hard enough, will blink—think Denny Hamlin in 2010—but you will never see that with these two.
That could make these last three races exciting. Johnson has won titles by forcing his opponent to blink; Keselowski has won on the racetrack because he will not, but if he thinks he can make Johnson blink instead, he’s sure to be disappointed. Neither will make a cheap move on the other to win as each lives by the unwritten rule that you race others the way they race you, but either one would pounce on any opportunity or misfortune without hesitation or remorse.
While they go about it in very different ways, both Johnson and Keselowski are also passionately invested in the sport, committed to making it better for both racers and the fans. Johnson prefers to go about it behind closed doors, speaking with NASCAR officials whenever he’s invited, though he admits frustration that the sanctioning body doesn’t often seem to want his—or anyone else’s—input. Whether he’s strangled by his sponsor or naturally reserved, Johnson does toe the line a bit. While that’s often mistaken for blandness, it’s not—Johnson just takes the “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” approach.
Keselowski doesn’t wait to be invited; he says it like it is and he doesn’t care if a few feathers get ruffled. He’s not in it to appease NASCAR or his fellow competitors, and he doesn’t really care if fans like him, either. It’s not a popularity contest after all. If Johnson is using honey to catch the flies, Kesleowski just whips out the big old can of Raid and annihilates them.
But if you look at the motivation behind the method, it’s all just a means to the end. Both drivers are keenly aware of the history of the sport and their place in it. They appreciate the sport’s roots; they understand that its blue-collar background is very much like their own and its success born of the same hunger they both feel to be the best they can be, to be remembered above all, as racers for they know the depth of what that single word conveys. They appreciate the men and women who came before and know there will be many who come after, and they hope they play a role in paving the way.
Neither Johnson nor Keselowski has been handed anything in their careers, and that contributes to a strikingly similar driving style on the track. Both understand give-and-take. They know that you can race as hard as anybody and still do it with respect. Both are reactive. Keselowski is more so; if he perceives that you raced him without respect, he _will_ let you know. He won’t back down, ever. That’s part of what made him a three-time Most Popular Driver in the Nationwide Series—he never rolled over for the Cup interlopers, and if they didn’t race him as cleanly as they could, he wouldn’t hesitate to let them know with a bumper. But for that aggression, he’s rarely the instigator.
At nine years older and already a certain Hall of Famer, Johnson is further down the road in his career, learned lessons that Keselowski hasn’t yet faced. And yet he still races with the same old fear he had as a rookie: that he’s not good enough, that he’s replaceable if he doesn’t perform. He doesn’t lack confidence in himself, but there is always that fear that someone else might outdo. He hasn’t lost the hunger, the deep desire to perform and perform at the top, that he had ten years ago when everyone wondered why on God’s green Earth Jeff Gordon would pick him to drive his racecar.
A few people wondered about Keselowski when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fist tapped him for his Nationwide team, too. He’s heard the doubt. Like Johnson, he’s living a dream, doing the only thing he’s ever wanted to do, and he’s on the verge of it all coming true. His best years are likely ahead of him still, and whether or not he’ll be among the best the sport has ever seen won’t be answered for some time yet. He’s where Jimmie Johnson was eight years ago—on the verge of something bigger than people thought he’d ever achieve.
Many people mistake self-confidence for arrogance, and if you are one of those, either, or both, of these drivers could strike you as arrogant—and while both are supremely self-confident, there isn’t really an arrogance there. Arrogance usually displays itself on the track with a “part the waters, I’m coming through” attitude that leads to other drivers’ lack of respect fairly quickly. Don’t let the occasional complaining on the radio fool you, both Johnson and Keselowski will race hard for every position they get, but they do it with respect and that’s seen in the way others race them.
Neither Johnson nor Keselowski is going to make anything easy for anyone. It’s simply not in their nature. If he gets a race lead, Johnson is a bulldog; he will not give it up; you’re going to have to _make_ him. Keselowski is the same way, and like Johnson, he’s perfectly willing to make someone give up the spot when and if he can. It will be the same with the points from here on out. Neither will give an inch, both will take a yard when and if they can. That attitude could play a big role in the excitement these last races could provide; barring mechanical or other outside influences, this one will go down with all the intensity of a life-or-death battle.
On the surface, the outgoing young talent hungry to prove himself and the proven champion who many call the best of his era go into the last races of the year as completely different drivers. That’s good, because by both polarizing fans with their choice of who to pull for and by bringing them together to see who can get it done, they’re uniting them for the good of the sport. But, while the brash, cocky youngster and the confident, reserved veteran look so very different, when they stare each other down entering the homestretch of a season that has redefined them both, neither should be surprised to see a part of himself in the other’s eyes as he stares back, both unblinking.
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