PHOENIX -- If Brad Keselowski has any advice for Matt Kenseth when it comes to taking on Jimmie Johnson in the heat of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, it would be simple -- don't hesitate to get aggressive with the five-time champion, something the Penske Racing driver thinks was key to his title run a year ago.
"That team's success comes from almost a gosh-golly-gee approach -- not racing hard -- and just beating you on pure speed, which has been their traditional advantage," Keselowski said of the No. 48 team. "So for them, I wouldn't want to race someone that's going to race me hard, because that's not their wheelhouse. And I think that was one of our strengths last year. If I was going to give Matt a piece of advice, I'd say use the s--- out of him. Every time you get, run him hard, because that's his weakness. But Matt's got to race how he wants to race. That's his right."
This championship race has boiled down to Johnson and Kenseth, who are separated by seven points as NASCAR's top series arrives at Phoenix International Raceway for the penultimate event of the season. As far as the title is concerned, Keselowski isn't a factor, given that the sport's reigning champion failed to qualify for the Chase. But that doesn't mean the rivalry between his group and the No. 48 team, so evident in the final weeks a year ago, has subsided. If anything, it remains at a low simmer.
That much seemed evident last Sunday at Texas, when No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus said after Johnson's victory that their opponent for the title this season "is a little more formidable than what we had last year." Although some interpreted that as praise for Kenseth, who already has a 2003 title to his name, others saw it as a slap at Keselowski.
Did that comment just roll off the reigning champions back? "No. No," Keselowski said. "It's just one of those situations where it's hard to really define what he's trying to say, and I said I'd give him the benefit of the doubt. But that doesn't mean I'm not listening," he added Thursday night during an event at team owner Roger Penske's museum, where a No. 2 car from last year's title run was being added to the collection.
"I think you have to look at the bigger picture. Matt Kenseth has won a championship. He's been at the Cup level for 13 seasons, approximately. He's got two Daytona 500 rings. I can't even list all his accomplishments, they're pretty big. I think that maybe the emphasis should be put on respecting what Matt has done, and not necessarily disrespecting where I'm at."
Keselowski can relate to Kenseth's situation. Last year it was the Penske driver who came to Phoenix seven points down to Johnson, but took a commanding advantage into the season finale after the No. 48 car cut a tire and hit the wall. Keselowski doesn't believe that was an accident -- he thinks it was a result of the way he pushed Johnson throughout the weekend, which in turn led the No. 48 team to push things too far with their car.
"I thought I ran him really hard at Texas, at Phoenix in practice," Keselowski said. "Some practice sessions I got by him. At the race he drove the car too hard until it blew out a tire. You can look at it and say it's a tire failure or whatever, but those in the garage that know how the cars work know it was reaching too hard and a failure that was caused from that. I feel quite confident in that. That's that group's weakness."
Friday morning at Phoenix International Raceway, Johnson said last year's tire failure on the one-mile track was of his team's own doing. "We overworked the tire. We created an issue ourselves," he said. "We were lacking some speed, the 2 had us covered the entire time here. In that particular run where the tire blew, I look back on, man, if I had preserved my tires a little more ? we'd go to Homestead with a much smaller deficit and have a much better chance of racing. So that's the lesson I take from last year's race here."
Johnson added he had no recollection of any tactics Keselowski might have used in practice last season at Phoenix to try and put pressure on him. And he was defiant when the topic turned to whether his team was averse to racing hard.
"I guess we need to ask Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin -- who else have I raced for a championship? -- Carl Edwards, a lot of those guys (about) how we race. We race hard. That's not a weakness of ours by any stretch," Johnson said.
"Racing's what I'm good at. I'm not the best at putting up the fastest lap, the best at qualifying, the best at topping the speed charts in practice. But look at who has the fastest cars on the race track. I'm good at racing. That's my sweet spot."
To Keselowski, the No. 48 team remains a study in contradictions. "You look at last weekend alone, it's very hard to believe that Jimmie Johnson is a driver who can run three-tenths faster than the entire field on skill, but that's what the numbers all showed," he said, referring to Texas. Like many others, he often wonders how Johnson's programs has been able to defy the natural peaks and troughs most other teams endure, and maintain such a consistently high standard from one season to the next.
"It's hard to really understand the full situation," Keselowski said. "But I can tell you this -- I feel like heads-up I can beat him, and that's all I can ask for."
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