FORT WORTH, Texas -- Near the entrance to the garage area, there's a banner picturing the two candidates, facing one another as if in anticipation of election day. At souvenir stands, there are ballot boxes decked out in red, white and blue bunting. In the media center, there's a real voting booth borrowed from a county election commission, and photos of the track president dressed like Uncle Sam.
Who says Texas isn't a swing state?
It certainly is this weekend, as the Sprint Cup tour visits Texas Motor Speedway for the third-to-last stop on this long campaign. With the real Election Day looming, the facility has embarked upon a clever promotional campaign pitting championship contenders Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski against one another as if they were political candidates. Fans will be handed "Brad vs. Jimmie" cards as they come through the gates, and urged to drop them in the appropriate voting boxes situated at souvenir stands on the property.
Results will be announced during Sunday's pre-race show -- pending involvement from whatever approximates an Electoral College at this facility in the Lone Star State. It's all in fun, and of course a non-binding resolution given that the championship contenders will settle matters for themselves on the race track. And yet, regardless of who the people's choice might be here this weekend, there seems a clear favorite that belies the two-point margin separating the two candidates. Johnson doesn't just hold the lead, he also wields a bulletproof reputation of performing at his best when everything is on the line.
If Keselowski is to win the championship, he's not only going to have to overcome this slim points deficit, but also the legacy of perhaps the greatest pressure-performer the sport has ever seen. The rebuild of the wrecked No. 48 car two weeks ago at Kansas, followed by a message-sending victory at Martinsville that seized the points lead -- those are the kinds of things that over time cut the heart out of Johnson's opponents, and we've seen him do it time and time again. The miracle run after wrecking at Talladega in 2006. Winning at Phoenix to slam the door on Mark Martin in 2009. Finishing second at Homestead to pull the rug from under Denny Hamlin in 2010.
Parts that don't fail. Equipment that doesn't break. A driver that never flinches. A team that never doubts. Keselowski is doing more than taking on an opponent over these final three races -- he's attempting to jam a machine that's constructed to win championships, and does it more efficiently than anyone ever has.
"Everybody around that team, all the road guys all the pit crew, everybody is just really maxed out in talent and ability," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., Keselowski's former car owner and now Johnson's stable mate at Hendrick Motorsports. "They are a tough opponent. They are a real tough opponent especially when they've got some confidence and it's late in the Chase and they are leading like this. You are really going to have to work hard and do some miraculous stuff to be able to beat them."
OK, maybe Earnhardt will admit, he's a company man. Perhaps, then, a more objective opinion from Martin Truex Jr. Keselowski has one more victory than Johnson, and four fewer DNFs on the season. But if Truex had to put money on it, he'd push all his chips toward the No. 48.
"It's the bet that, chances are, it's going to pay," said the Michael Waltrip Racing driver. "I mean, Keselowski's done good. There's no doubt. They're in in it. Man, I'm pretty sure he's found Jimmie Johnson's horseshoe from a coupe of years ago. I mean, the 48, they're so consistent. Fast in practice, qualifying, race. They do everything really well. To get destroyed at Kansas and finish ninth -- I don't know. That's hard to beat."
In fairness, Keselowski's team is perhaps the stoutest competition Johnson has faced since his rise as championship contender. No. 2 crew chief Paul Wolfe is a brilliant strategist who seems willing and able to exploit what has always been the No. 48 team's great weakness -- fuel mileage. Keselowski is a brash 27-year-old who while respectful of Johnson's reputation and accomplishments, doesn't seem awed by them. Although Keselowski has some problems in qualifying, speed in the car is never an issue. Penske as an organization seems buttoned-down in the Hendrick mold, the kind of team unlikely to be beaten by its own mistakes.
"Anything can happen," Clint Bowyer said. "Three races is still a lot of racing. You can go into Homestead 20 points out and win this thing. You never know what's going to happen. Anything can happen. It could come down to the last lap, Jimmie runs out of gas and you win the championship. ... There's just so many crazy things that could still happen. We still have a short track with Phoenix. We still have these mile-and-a-halves that have been coming down to fuel mileage. That can play a huge role in a championship and the way things play out."
And yet, when Bowyer -- who is third and points, and 26 out of the lead -- is asked what needs to happen for him to get back in this championship hunt, he leaves no doubt as to which driver is the man to beat.
"Well, Jimmie wasn't in New York when [Hurricane] Sandy hit. He was in North Carolina, it looks like, so he made it. So, scratch that from the list of ideas possibly that I could [use to] win this championship. I think hit man is probably out of the order. He rides his bicycle a lot -- I was hoping maybe he would blow his knee out or something. Nothing career-ending or anything. Maybe painful. Something painful to keep him out of the car," he said, in his typical joking fashion.
"You have to beat him. That's what makes this sport what it is. It's incredible, the job they do each and every year, and it's a challenge for everybody to try and outrun him. They are so solid. We saw [it] in Kansas -- about the time you think, oh boy, they've done stubbed their toe now, they had a hell of a Band-Aid and got it fixed right back up. I think he finished right behind me, and it's like, how did they possibly do that? That's what it takes to win a championship."
And that's what Keselowski is up against. As good as he is, as close as the margin may be, there's still only so much he can do against a driver who rarely makes mistakes and drives cars that rarely break. Asked if he's ever experienced a mechanical failure in the Chase -- of the sort that derailed title bids by Kyle Busch in 2008 and Denny Hamlin this year -- Johnson could only think of one, a spark plug problem at New Hampshire in 2006. Running on seven cylinders, he was caught up in a crash and finished 39th. He still went on to win his first championship that season.
|5.||M. Truex Jr.||189.994||28.422|
Crewmen on the No. 48 team "are raised in a culture where we can't have mechanical failures," Johnson said, all of it overseen by crew chief Chad Knaus, whose attention to detail leaves little to chance -- he once had a crack in the Homestead pit wall taped over so the air hose wouldn't get caught. Wolfe seems cut from the same cloth, and is likely a big reason why Keselowski's lone DNF this season is a crash in the Daytona 500. The No. 2 team is almost certainly in this until the end, given that Keselowski is on a run where he's finished lower than 11th just once since Kentucky in July.
Staying in it and winning it are two different things, though, particularly when Johnson is involved. The No. 48 team simply didn't have the speed in the car to contend last year, a shortcoming that's been rectified. No question, with two intermediate tracks still out there, the specter of fuel mileage looms large. But given his position and his history, the level of confidence Johnson carries with him this time of year is as obvious as the Texas flag flying over the speedway. He's not going to give this away, not in the least. He's going to have to be beaten, and if Keselowski can do that, he'll have pulled off the NASCAR equivalent of slaying the biggest dragon around.
"Brad has put [up] a good fight," said Jeff Gordon, Johnson's teammate. "If you're putting money down on it, it's hard to go against that No. 48 team. They're just so rock-solid at so many different tracks. They've won five championships, so it's not like they're nervous. They're pretty relaxed and in a comfort zone, and it's really nothing to lose. They've won five championships, and they're in great position. But, where Brad is going for it basically for the first time ... they've done a great job. So it's not just hands-down, one's got it in the bag."
Or in the ballot box. Thankfully, despite all the banners and bunting at Texas, this electoral period doesn't end for another two weeks.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Jimmie Johnson
- Brad Keselowski