Does this look like a shootout? (Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson did his best to rattle Brad Keselowski on Thursday at the Sprint Cup championship contenders' press conference. But Johnson may have ended up unintentionally proving that Keselowski is the worthy rival Johnson's needed all these years.
Since Johnson began winning championships back in 2006, he's vanquished a host of the best names in NASCAR: Gordon, Edwards, Martin, Hamlin, Harvick. Since 2006, he's never gone toe-to-toe with a fellow driver heading into the final race and lost. But then, he's facing a far tougher challenge now than in any of his five championship seasons. He sits 20 points behind Keselowski, requiring both a strong finish from his own team and a weak one from Keselowski.
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"Brad," Johnson said, mock-helpfully, "if you'd like me to call later and remind you ... of guys that didn't pull off the season finale as they would hope."
With talk to Twitter and families, along with some attempts at baiting that fell flat, this year's conference was far tamer than the past two years. In 2010, Johnson and Harvick tag-teamed Hamlin with such psychological ferocity that Hamlin's legs were shaking. And last year, Tony Stewart hammered Carl Edwards until Edwards could find his footing. You could argue, perhaps, that the winner of the psychological battle on Thursday was able to turn that victory into a major win on Sunday.
If that's the case, Johnson has reason to be worried. He used the exact same "all the pressure's on him" lines on Keselowski that worked so well on Hamlin two years ago:
"The magnitude [of an impending championship] sets in at some point," he said. "I've been the guy leading the points ... You're forced to answer questions that you're not used to answering, that you don't want to answer, and it builds through the course of the week. Again, it hits everybody differently, and there's no guarantees how it'll hit him. But I know from my own experience that there have been those moments. Fortunately I responded well to them. We'll see how the weekend goes."
But this time around, Keselowski wasn't biting. Indeed, Keselowski indicated he'd double down on the aggressive approach that's gotten him this far:
"One of my favorite movies in the whole wide world is this documentary on Ayrton Senna, and there's this really powerful scene in that movie that sticks with me when I think about this weekend," he said. "I think about this scene in the movie when they talked about him at Monaco, which was his ‑‑ just his phenomenal track that he was so strong at and how he had this huge lead over his teammate ... and they were coming down to the closing laps of the race, and they told him to slow down, you have a huge lead, don't worry, just slow down, just ‑‑ and he wrecked. And I think of that as I approach this weekend. I'm going to go out there and play my game, race my way. That's got us to this point, and if we do that, we'll be fine."
2010 was a decisive knockout for Johnson. 2011 was a split-decision win on points for Stewart. 2012? To be the man, you gotta beat the man, and Keselowski weathered Johnson's best shots. The Blue Deuce gets the win on Thursday; we'll see how that translates on Sunday.
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