In one corner you have the most successful organization in modern NASCAR history, winner of 10 championships on the sport's premier division, a team whose parts and pieces have been responsible for the last six titles at the Sprint Cup level. In the other corner you have a driver whose manufacturer is pulling out at the end of the season, but has seven career victories and possesses potential and fearlessness to spare. How appropriate, then, that famed boxing emcee Michael Buffer will be part of pre-race ceremonies Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Because let's get ready to rumble.
The Chase for NASCAR's ultimate championship doesn't begin for another three weeks, but it started unofficially Sunday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway, when two primary combatants emerged from their corners with gloves up. That doesn't even include race winner and current points leader Greg Biffle, who threw down a gauntlet of his own in guaranteeing that he would be a factor in the season finale at Homestead. No, this bout focuses instead what would appear a couple of fighters from mismatched weight classes, Hendrick Motorsports and Brad Keselowski, who together at the moment comprise the best rivalry in the sport.
There's mighty Hendrick, the heavyweight champ with all those wins and all those titles, home of Jimmie and Jeff and Junior, with four drivers who could make this year's Chase field and three who could realistically win it. Then there's Keselowski, who's operating at a size disadvantage given that this is only his second year as a true contender on the highest level, but whose talent, nerve and outspokenness make him a pest in the ring and tough to knock down. The bell opening this bout sounded last weekend, when Keselowski got in the first jabs by virtue of comments about Hendrick's race cars, and made it clear he wasn't intimidated by a certain five-time champ.
"The 48 has the most speed and the best history as far as the Chase is concerned. But it's my job to not roll over and give it to them," Keselowski said, after Johnson's engine failure in the final laps allowed him to snag second place at Michigan. "... We're going to keep 'em honest through this Chase. That's our goal. I think it's good to know that, that they're frustrated, 'cause they should be. We nailed it. Hopefully while, you know, they keep working on the other things, we'll find that little bit of speed to go with the execution we have and be in even better condition to close the deal out. We just got to keep pushing in that sense. We caught a lucky break that was unfortunate for Jimmie with him not getting though bonus points for a win, but he definitely deserved to win the race. Just didn't play out that way. The 48 might be the favorite for the championship, but we're not going to roll over and just let them have it."
Where to begin? With the most obvious, and the fact that Johnson indeed still fronts the strongest team in the sport right now, a program that could very easily have five wins and be pulling away in the race for top Chase seed. Instead, the No. 48 car spun in what proved the waning laps at Pocono, had the engine blow while en route to victory at Michigan, and remains knotted with Tony Stewart and Keselowski -- that guy again -- for most victories on the circuit, with Biffle suddenly one step behind them.
But it's Keselowski, posting back-to-back runner-up finishes approaching a Bristol track where he's won the last two races, who appears most eager to dig in his teeth and not let go. He tossed in a verbal combination even during an on-track television interview last week, remarking to the ESPN broadcasters about how "tricked up" the cars of Hendrick drivers Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were, and how hopeful he was that he could make things uncomfortable for them. The Penske Racing driver is certainly winding up some haymakers, as he did after the Michigan race when he was asked to explain the "tricked up" parts of the Hendrick cars -- the now-famous "yaw" that made Johnson so untouchable at Indianapolis and so dominant at Pocono a week later.
"There's parts and pieces on the car that are moving after inspection that make the car more competitive. Some guys have it, some don't. There's a question to the interpretation of the rule. Penske Racing errs on the safe side, because we don't want to be the guys that get the big penalty. Obviously there's a question to the interpretation that as of right now it's legal. But I'm sure that Roger doesn't want to be the one caught red handed. As a group at Penske Racing, we have not felt comfortable enough to risk that name and reputation that Roger has over those parts and pieces. Others have, which is their prerogative," he said.
"I'm not going to slam them for it. But it's living in a gray area. Roger doesn't do that. There's certainly some performance there that we've lost. I shouldn't say lost, but haven't gained, because we choose not to do that. That's something that we have to continue to evaluate every week that goes by, that those components are permitted to be run. We have to make a reevaluation of that internally to decide if that's the right way to go. But as it stands now, certainly that's part of the speed discrepancy through the field. Some of the teams haven't figured out how to make it work, some of them just don't feel comfortable risking the piggybank on it. It's part of how this sport works behind closed doors. We're still working our way through it."
First of all, it might be unfair to characterize Roger Penske as someone unwilling to take advantage of gray areas. After all, he did just that at the 1994 Indianapolis 500, showing up with a car powered by a secretly-built Mercedes-Benz pushrod engine capable of generating 1,024 horsepower, exploiting a loophole that let car owners use larger engines if they chose pushrod varieties over the standard overhead cam. Predictably, Penske drivers dominated the race, reaching speeds of nearly 250 mph at the end of the straights as the Captain added yet another Borg-Warner Trophy to his collection. Not unexpectedly, that engine loophole was closed tight for the next season.
So yes, Penske knows his way around a gray area. Evidently, other teams do, too. Biffle said after his Michigan victory that the yaw issue came up as teams looked for ways to seal the air out from the bottom of their cars after NASCAR reduced the length of the right side skirt by an inch and a half. Crews are now using sway bars, springs, and tolerances in axle housings to try and make up the difference, which makes the car appear to slide left or right on its yaw axis as it traverses the corner. The Hendrick guys, it seems, were ahead of the curve. "It took us awhile to figure out what they were doing," said Biffle's car owner, Jack Roush, "but we have been working at it, and have assurance from NASCAR that it is OK and within the rules."
Of course, that won't stop Keselowski from needling a Hendrick team with a track record of running afoul of NASCAR inspectors over a murky bit of mechanical witchcraft. And it won't stop him from trying to get inside the heads of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, as he might have done to a small extent at one point during the Michigan race when he beat Johnson out of the pits, leading to a befuddled exchange over No. 48 team radio. As to whether Keselowski relishes the role of instigator, consider that this is a driver who chose Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Won't Back Down" as his introductory song a few years ago at Bristol.
So yes, this battle between the establishment and the upstart is on, and given how strong they've both been lately, it promises to only grow more heated with time. Last year it took until October at Martinsville, and Stewart's "he won't sleep for three weeks" line directed at Carl Edwards, for the Chase to truly develop an edge. This season it already has one, and the playoff hasn't even started yet. One thing seems for certain, though -- in this championship bout, there will be no victory by decision. Somebody is going to get knocked out.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.