The Jedi Mind Trick was on full blast Thursday afternoon, blowing stronger and hotter than even one of the jet dryers at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Again and again, Jimmie Johnson attempted to plant that seed of doubt inside Brad Keselowski's brain, again and again the five-time champion tried to emphasize that anything can happen in one race. As his trump card, NASCAR's preeminent Obi Wan pulled out a reference to his rival's Penske Racing team.
"I find another point of motivation and optimism [in] the IndyCar championship and how it unfolded at Fontana," Johnson said in a media conference featuring the final two Sprint Cup title contenders. "It seemed like it was a layup race, and things can happen."
In that event at Auto Club Speedway, Will Power led by 17 points before crashing 55 laps into the race, all but gift-wrapping the title for Ryan Hunter-Reay. What Johnson didn't say was that Power competes for the same Penske organization that Keselowski does. He enters Sunday's Sprint Cup finale with a 20-point lead and needs to finish 15th to claim his first championship in NASCAR's premier division.
Thursday's session didn't feature the outright verbal sparring that characterized the same event last year, when Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards jawed at each other like heavyweight title contenders at a weigh-in. As has been the case so often since this championship race effectively boiled down to Johnson and Keselowski, the jabs were much more subtle. But make no mistake, they were there, most of them delivered by a driver who uncharacteristically needs help to secure a sixth title.
* Championship Contender:Keselowski | Johnson
"To think that a top-15 finish is a layup is tough," Johnson said. "This garage area is tough. The weight of this race -- I don't care who you are, it will show up at some point in time, and thoughts will run through your head. With all that being said, a 15th-place finish isn't a layup for these guys. So I have a little bit of stock in that, and we'll see how they respond. Their trends this year have been strong. But this is a different race."
Keselowski took it in stride, perhaps because the numbers are on his side. Johnson has overcome a deficit on the final weekend to win a championship only once, in 2010 when he made up a 15-point gap to Denny Hamlin that under the old points system was much less than what he's dealing with now. Since his July victory at Kentucky, Keselowski has been absolutely lights-out, finishing lower than 11th just once during than span. Heck, he even looked the part of champion Thursday, showing up to the media event dressed in a sport coat.
"For us, it's about focusing on getting the job done and trying not to think about all those other things -- whether that's what [the championship] means, or what obstacles lie ahead," he said. "It's about just focusing on what we need to do. The history books and the life lessons and all that stuff will take care of itself if we get the job done, and that's where our focus is."
Of course, Johnson seemed to have the math on his side last week, when he held the points lead at a Phoenix track where he so often had been a sure thing. A melted bead on a tire and a crash into the wall changed that. Now playing from behind, Johnson really had no choice Thursday but to unleash what's always been his greatest weapon -- that innate, cool superiority which at the height of his championship run had teams beaten before they ever got to the race track. "I'm very optimistic," he said, acting in control even though he wasn't.
Over and over, he hammered home the point that he's been here many times before. Keselowski has a Nationwide Series championship to his credit but is on the cusp of a Sprint Cup title for the first time.
"One thing I've learned is that, regardless of how experienced anyone is in this championship battle, at some point the magnitude of it hits you," Johnson said.
"He may be calm and comfortable now, it may not happen until he's in the car. But at some point, that magnitude hits. I've been through it five times. That's a turning moment. We'll see how he responds. It carries over to guys changing tires. There's some point when everyone on that race team says, 'This is it.'
"I've been there. I've been the guy leading the points, and people want to know all these what-ifs. What if it happens? You're forced to answer questions you're not used to answering, you don't want to answer. And it builds through the course of the week. It hits everybody differently, and there's no guarantee how it's going to hit them. But I know from my experience there have been those moments. Fortunately, I responded well to them. We'll see how the weekend goes."
And yet, Keselowski didn't seemed fazed. With the lead or racing at a deficit, taking shots from Johnson on the restart at Texas or in the media center at Homestead, the 28-year-old never has flinched. As this Chase gets closer to the end, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s words from Martinsville seem prophetic. "I don't think he's going to crack," Keselowski's former boss at JR Motorsports said then. "I think he'll be hard to beat. ... Brad has been waiting for this opportunity all his life, so I don't expect him to crack under pressure."
So far, he's been right. Keselowski said that degree of mental fortitude comes from the people around him -- stoic crew chief Paul Wolfe, businesslike car owner Roger Penske, parents who are loving and supportive but rarely seem caught up in the moment. One week ago, Johnson appeared in control of this championship race. Thursday, the five-time champion did everything he could to get in Keselowski's head, save bend a spoon with his mind. Through it all, the driver of the No. 2 car just keeps rolling.
"I think it comes from the people you're surrounded by, and how comfortable they are," Keselowski said. "That comes into your own world. I can tell you the group I'm surrounded by, whether in my personal or professional life, they're not known for being too rattled in these opportunities and these positions. ... [They] put out a level of calmness that's somewhat addictive."
And so it comes down to Sunday. Keselowski says he won't alter the all-out approach that's gotten him to this point -- even needing only to finish 15th, he says he refuses to play it safe. He finds some motivation from a scene in a documentary about late Formula 1 champ Ayrton Senna, who once had such a commanding lead in the final laps of a race at Monaco that his team begged him to slow down. He never did. Neither will Keselowski.
"I think of that as I approach this weekend," he said. "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. And I think that's our approach."
Of course, in that 1988 race at Monaco, Senna crashed -- he banged off a guardrail to squander a 50-second lead and allowed Alain Prost to win. On Sunday, Johnson surely wouldn't mind if a similar fate befell the driver he's pursuing for the championship. Because at this stage, it's become quite clear that the only person who can beat Brad Keselowski is himself.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.