Jimmie Johnson may have the points lead, but Brad Keselowski is the driver who has made this Chase so interesting. His opening salvo at Chicagoland, fuel gambles at Dover and Charlotte, bold pit calls at Martinsville and Texas, a vow not to ride around in the back at Talladega -- in almost every event over the course of this championship race, the No. 2 team has done something that's forced people to take notice. Win or lose this thing, they're clearly doing it their way, and without question making their mark.
It's all been tremendous theatre, to this point capped off by the image of Johnson and Keselowski banging against one another in a late restart at Texas -- a confrontation which, when viewed in still frames, makes you wonder how one or both of them kept their vehicles under control. And yet, the longer this has gone on, the more Keselowski's grip has slipped. During a span of five races he's gone from 14 ahead, to seven ahead, to two behind, to now seven behind. That's an obvious trend in the wrong direction, and Sunday he needs a great run at Phoenix International Raceway, one of Johnson's better tracks, to try and stem the tide.
Now, clearly, he's still in this. Should Johnson get trapped by a caution on pit road, or not be able to save the right amount of fuel at the right time -- no denying the five-time champ's greatness, but the dude often has a lead foot -- everything could go in the opposite direction, as it threatened to do on the same Arizona track two years ago before Denny Hamlin had to make a fated fuel stop that allowed the Johnson run to go on unimpeded. Seven points isn't a lot. Until, that is, you consider the competition, and the way in which they go about their business, and how that contrast has shaped the championship race.
If Penske's No. 2 camp is the group that takes chances, Hendrick's No. 48 team is the bunch that does everything by the book. Keselowski's group -- in a comparison the driver himself has made -- is reminiscent of a football defense that blitzes the quarterback on every down, willing to give up the occasional big play in the name of forcing turnovers and solidifying field position. Meanwhile, Johnson's outfit is the baseball brain trust that never steers too far from the orthodox, matching up lefties and righties just as expected, and always sending the runners in motion on a full count.
One team tries to force its opponents into making mistakes, the other tries never to make any. It's a fascinating study of conflicting styles, as much an irresistible-force-versus-immovable-object situation as we've seen in NASCAR in a long time. Both drivers are supremely talented, both crew chiefs are savvy, both over-the-wall units are solid, both cars are fast. When it comes to the mental game, both guys seem able to give as good as they get. It's very difficult to find one single area where either Johnson or Keselowski holds a decided advantage, an evenness that's reflected in the standings. In a championship battle this close, between two teams that deep down really are very much like one another, there's only one notable difference -- approach.
The No. 2 team has been unapologetic about its style, and understandably so. Yes, some of this surely stems from the nature of a guy like Keselowski, who relishes in trying to rattle his opponents whenever possible, and whose energy and outspokenness seem reflected in the way he drives the car. And yet, with a title on the line, he's not doing this simply to be a pot-stirrer. Earlier this week during a round of media appearances at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, Keselowski was asked whether some of the calls he and crew chief Paul Wolfe have made were intended to try and push the No. 48 team out of its comfort zone.
He laughed. "Maybe," he said.
Yeah, there's a method to this madness, all right. The complication, though, arises when the opposition doesn't take the bait, or regroups better than anyone thought possible, or benefits from events that mitigate whatever disadvantage it might have faced. As far as Johnson is concerned, that would be Martinsville, Kansas, and Texas, in that order. The No. 48 team operates in such a clinical fashion, leaving so little to chance, that it's difficult to imagine it ever beating itself. That didn't happen for five straight years, and it's unlikely to happen now, as Johnson enters the final stages of what's become a very familiar routine. Make laps, win races, let the other guy make mistakes. So far, a bulletproof plan.
"We've been racing pretty conservatively the last couple of weeks," Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, said after last weekend's victory at Texas. "... So they'll have to continue to be aggressive to swing by us, I think."
Surely that's just what Knaus wants, given the results so far. Honestly, the No. 2 team has probably made just two mistakes over the course of this Chase, both of them relatively small -- Keselowski locking up the brakes entering his pit box Sunday, and pushing a fuel run a lap too far at Charlotte before running out of gas and finishing 11th. Everything else the No. 2 team has done has been within the overall framework of its approach, a go-big-or-go-home mentality which served it so well in the early stages of the playoff. At Chicago and Kansas and Dover, everything worked out. At Charlotte and Martinsville and Texas, it didn't. With two races remaining, don't expect Keselowski and Wolfe to depart from type.
"I felt like if one or two cautions didn't come out at Texas, we win the race. If one or two cautions come out at the end at Charlotte, we win the race," Keselowski said. "Those little things have fallen against us, and that's frustrating, but we're doing a great job of controlling what we can control, and those little breaks that we're not catching right now, they'll come back full circle, and I feel confident that when they do, that I have the team and the group around me, there's speed in the car, all those things, to be able to capitalize and win races and win this championship."
No doubt -- but it's tough to hope for breaks against an opponent that so rarely provides them. This week Keselowski has lamented the timing of some of those final cautions at Texas, but the truth is Johnson was champing at the bit over team radio, wanting it to go green to the end, knowing that his four tires would likely be better than Keselowski's two over the course of a longer run. In hindsight, it's amazing the No. 2 car held onto the lead as long as it did. "I think we were in the offensive situation there at the end. They had to protect because of those two tires," Johnson said after the race. It was a case of the No. 48 team sticking to its game plan, and somehow still managing to flip the script.
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That's the risk involved when trying to employ this aggressive approach against a unit like Johnson's, which is capable of turning your own tactics against you. Early on, when the Chase was still a 12-man race, the strategy used by Keselowski and Wolfe did a sparkling job of helping the No. 2 team separate itself from the pack. But this isn't a 12-man race anymore. It's head-to-head, against the steadiest and most mistake-free outfit in modern NASCAR history, and what worked in early September may not be as effective today.
Now, none of this is intended to characterize Keselowski as reckless -- he's cut back on some of his Nationwide starts, brought in his sister to help with business affairs, and personally taken a very smart approach to this Chase. On the race track, though, the strategy has not changed. And even now facing a points deficit, there are no regrets. "I felt like we made all the right calls," he told fans at the Hall of Fame earlier this week. "Sometimes you make the right decisions, and things don't work out."
With two races left, down seven points, he has no choice but to keep it up. Now, calling the blitz isn't just the right play, it's the only play. As we've seen in recent weeks, however, sometimes the opposing quarterback gets rid of the football a little too quickly.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.