Sunday’s final laps at Texas, after the 400 miles of throw-up preceding it, felt like a heavyweight throw-down. Brad Keselowski, the Sprint Cup challenger up front spent each lap landing frantic punches, unafraid to give the champion inside the No. 48 a few uppercuts to his unyielding confidence. Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe, pulled the best Chad Knaus impression possible by going against the grain with a two-tire strategy, earning them track position with a car capable of a Five-Time TKO. Mentally, Keselowski jumped inside Johnson’s head, accelerating early on a restart and then physically slamming the No. 2 Dodge into the Lowe’s Chevrolet, shattering sheet metal while making it clear that when both run side-by-side, a title on the line all bets are off. For Johnson, who’s won five championships without playing the contact game, it’s a world of uncontrolled aggression where he is competent but not comfortable.
Every expert out there, with the laps clicking down and Keselowski holding on to these Texas-sized advantages, was then ready to give the edge to the No. 2 car. A driver without a career top-10 finish at the track, driving for a manufacturer two weeks away from packing up and shipping out, it had all the flavor of an upset special, Penske Racing literally willed to the top by a driver refusing to concede. A victory here, in Johnson’s wheelhouse of intermediate ovals, would give Keselowski the lead by two points, all but guarantee the points tiebreaker on wins and turn their five-time championship rival into oh, about a five-point underdog in the polls down the stretch. Surely, fans would have to pay attention now, with Phoenix and Homestead a chance for someone else to steal the spotlight.
Instead, it was Johnson, wobbly but willful, who found a way. When a Mark Martin wreck gave him one last restart, placed beside the No. 2 car, failure wasn’t an option. Crowding the inside entering Turn 1, he turned aggression against Keselowski and left the challenger holding a daunting choice: lose this race by jumping out of the throttle to keep control, or be the man who wrecked a five-time champion to hold his own trophy. Johnson calculated, correctly, that Keselowski would choose the choice with class; seconds later, bad aero left the challenger sideways and the No. 48 sitting pretty in first place. It wasn’t the fastest car when it counted; but as the smoke cleared Sunday, with Johnson sitting in Victory Lane, it was a classic case of how the favorite always seems to be the best on the lap that counts – the last one.
“I expect hard racing,” Johnson said after his 22nd “postseason” victory in 77 career races – an absurd winning percentage of nearly 29 percent. “All Chase long, you can’t count those guys out. They are keeping us honest and pressuring us hard.”
Clearly, the No. 2 team has done everything possible to bend the No. 48 team. But they haven’t broken. It’s a clear pattern now, where a challenger comes up and gives Johnson 110 percent in the midst of a season that, on paper could be considered a championship in its own right. There was Jeff Gordon in ’07, with a modern-era record 30 top-10 finishes and no Chase result worse than 11th. Then, it was Edwards, armed with a league-leading nine victories, seven podium Chase finishes and 467 laps led during the final four races of the ‘08 season. Mark Martin in ’09, Denny Hamlin in ’10… the list holds on it some of the sport’s biggest names.
But what separates a heavyweight champion from a challenger is an ability to stay steady in the force of those punches. Johnson does that. The team was unfazed when Keselowski began the Chase with a win at Chicagoland, then Dover, the “Monster Mile” that’s been as close to an automatic victory for Johnson as he could get. That type of sizzling start would have left most title contenders on edge, especially with the fuel mileage and speed advantage flashed by the No. 2. But the No. 48 simply runs their races, in their mindset while waiting for the other guy to fall victim to the one thing you can’t have in this point system: mistakes.
And for all the good the No. 2 car has done, as much as they’ve risen to a higher level, the minor miscues are just enough to catch up with them. Texas was a third straight opportunity to set the tone at an intermediate; Keselowski has blown all three. There was Charlotte, where the Miller Lite Dodge was in control up front and virtually guaranteed to finish ahead of Johnson before stretching it one lap too far on gas. Then, there was Kansas, where Johnson wrecked the No. 48 into pieces but crew chief Paul Wolfe (and seemingly Keselowski) kept it conservative where a top-5 performance (via a two-tire strategy for track position?) would have put the pressure on. While they soldiered home eighth, right behind them like some sort of freak of nature was a wounded Johnson, ninth despite a rear end put together with more black tape than actual sheet metal. How much more important would that Martinsville sixth-place finish have been if the challenger kept the point lead on top of it?
Now, in Texas, Keselowski had the fastest car but created a self-inflicted wound that proved costly. Sliding through his pit during his second-to-last stop with 58 laps remaining dropped him to ninth. That forced a last-gasp effort. The two-tire strategy got him up front but proved enough of a disadvantage to open the door for the No. 48 — a few timely cautions notwithstanding.
“When you catch the breaks that he caught today with the yellows and then you execute like they can,” Keselowski said of his rival. “You’re unbeatable.”
But that’s the catch; the champion doesn’t win so much every year as the challenger beats himself. Add up those points, from Charlotte to Kansas to Texas, and the No. 2 car has left over 20 points on the table. Ask Denny Hamlin about that. Hamlin, after winning Texas two years ago thought he had the title in hand only to leave the door open at Phoenix by making an extra stop for gas. Johnson took advantage, conserved his own Sunoco and snuck ahead of Hamlin in the final running order; it was only a handful of points, but the No. 11 car was toast. Edwards, back in ’08 seemingly had the edge, then got a little overeager at Talladega and made one fatal move to try and keep the No. 48 in sight. The resulting wreck wiped out half the field, left the challenger limping to the finish and the champion firmly in control.
Those are the type of points-gobbling errors Johnson has made just once since 2006: last season, a Charlotte wreck and all sorts of pit problems proving the No. 48 can be human after all. But it’s rare. This Chase, Johnson’s lone mistake was Kansas, and even then, you can turn that around and say the No. 48 recovered. The missteps were made early enough where making most of a bad day was still possible; a 25th-place disaster was turned into a top-10 surprise that defined their postseason, again.
Certainly, with a seven-point deficit, Keselowski still has a shot to win it all. Phoenix was a strength for him this Spring; win there and Homestead becomes a bit of a toss-up. Johnson could still have some sort of unforeseen mechanical problem, a tire go down or some sort of unexplained malady down the stretch. But this Chase, once again, has the look of a guy who rose to the challenge, put together a career year and gave it his best shot, only to fall short to a champion used to repelling these one-year rebellions to the throne.
Johnson may not be popular. How he’s winning, in your view, may be laden with luck, or tainted with monetary advantages like the anti-Yankees fans so often claim in baseball. As ESPN’s Ricky Craven said so eloquently on Sunday, you may detest everything about the man and the owner he drives for. But the ability of someone to withstand these kinds of battles, every time, is the type of track record historians will talk about for decades – and what’s put him on the verge of an unprecedented sixth title in seven seasons.
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