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Keselowski, Johnson pick up where they left off

NASCAR.com

Jimmie and Brad, Brad and Jimmie. They were nearly inseparable down the stretch last year, as they battled one another for the championship in NASCAR's premier series. And if the opening weeks of this season are any indication, they're picking up right where they left off.

Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson found themselves side-by-side on the final lap last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, vying for a runner-up finish behind race winner Carl Edwards until Denny Hamlin made his bold dive in the dogleg to separate the two. It was a scene not unlike the season-opening Daytona 500, when Johnson had to chase down Keselowski to capture his second title in the Great American Race.

It all harkens back to the final weeks of last season, when Keselowski and Johnson banged against one another on the race track as they decided the Sprint Cup championship between themselves. The end proved anticlimactic, with a tire blowout and then a mechanical problem sending Johnson behind the wall in the year's final two events, allowing Keselowski to clinch the crown before the finale was even completed. Clint Bowyer snuck in to claim second in the standings, edging Johnson by one point.

But make no mistake about it: the showdown was between the two drivers in blue race cars, one trying to win his first title and the other trying to take another step toward tying the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, and the King, Richard Petty. It was Keselowski and Johnson who went door-to-door in the final laps at Texas, and who tried to get inside each other's heads in the press conference before the finale at Homestead. It was Keselowski and Johnson who created the face-off between upstart and establishment, one that resumed in 2013 as if there had been no offseason at all.

It certainly seemed that way in the Daytona 500, which Keselowski -- despite a patched-up race car that had been involved in two earlier accidents -- somehow led in the waning laps. Johnson tried to chase him down, but the reigning champ had the preferred high line, and his bandaged Ford held on. Johnson managed to nose ahead right before a caution and earned the right to choose his own lane on the restart. Not long after, it was his Chevy pulling away from the field on the outside.

Keselowski would get another shot at the five-time champion seven days later, shoving leader Edwards on the green-white-checkered restart at Phoenix, and moving into second place in the process. At the white flag, the two adversaries were side-by-side. But then Hamlin dove low to force it three wide with Keselowski in the middle, and when Hamlin had to hit the brakes entering the third turn, Keselowski was forced to check up as well. Regardless, it was impossible to miss last year's top title contenders mixing it up at the end of a race once again.

Coincidence? Or two drivers at the top of their games, always keeping one another in their sights? Both drivers also competed in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Phoenix, and in preparations for that event Keselowski reportedly said over the radio that he wanted to beat Johnson in everything he could -- even a race to the bathroom. The rivalry that took shape over the latter half of last season seems to have bridged the gap into 2013, taking on even more significance now that both protagonists have a championship to their name.

"Without a doubt, and it's not just Brad-related," Johnson said after finishing second at Phoenix. "I'm sure Brad has a few others on his radar, and whoever is ahead of him on the track or in the points. But I'm well aware that with the success that I've had over the last eight or 10 years that there's a lot of bull's-eyes on me. I'm kind of afraid to sleep at night sometimes. I know those guys are all gunning for me, and that's a huge honor, it really is, to have the garage and then the reigning champion thinking that way about me."

Johnson has stoked the situation a few times himself, most notably in the preseason when he intimated that the new champ -- as famous for his beer-guzzling celebration at Homestead as he is for his title -- might still need a little seasoning. "I think we all sit back and chuckle at times at some of the things he says and does," Johnson said prior to the Daytona 500. "He is a great guy. He has the best of intentions for our sport, for his sponsor, for his team. He just needs to mature a little."

Of course, Keselowski has done his part as well, like last summer when he called out Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates for their yawed setups. This year, though, his driving has done the talking for him, and his dogged battles with Johnson on the track speak volumes. No matter where you look, they're right there next to each other, even in the standings. Johnson is on top heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, with Keselowski effectively tied for second with Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of them eight points behind. Would it really surprise anyone if they maintained those positions all season long?

Certainly, it would be enjoyable to watch. As much as they yearn to beat one another, Keselowski and Johnson have always kept it professional, always maintained a level of mutual respect. That was never more evident than in their slam-bang finish at Texas last season, which set the stage for more battles to come. Two races into 2013, and we've already seen two dramatic head-to-head showdowns between the past and present champions of NASCAR's top division. Given the level of performance both teams are showing, Vegas odds are probably good that we'll see a few more.

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