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Johnson, Keselowski Continue Tense Duel For Sprint Cup At Phoenix

NASCAR’s “Chase for the Sprint Cup” has become a “two-fer” – two drivers in the fight with two races remaining.

That sets the stage for a Wild West Shootout in the AdvoCare 500 on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, and it pits two drivers with strong connections to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Brickyard Legend” Jimmie Johnson is a four-time Brickyard 400 winner who is attempting to win his sixth Sprint Cup title. Johnson, who won this year’s Crown Royal presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard, has a seven-point lead over Brad Keselowski. Although Keselowski has yet to achieve “Brickyard Legend” status, he drives for Roger Penske, the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history.

Keselowski was in front of the field for most of the Chase. But Johnson took charge after winning two weeks ago at Martinsville, Va., to take a two-point lead over Keselowski. Johnson made it two straight wins last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, finishing just ahead of Keselowski after several thrilling late-race restarts. That has allowed Johnson to begin to pull away in his championship drive.

“I expect for Brad (Keselowski) to be strong here,” Johnson said Friday. “He and I raced real hard for third or four positions in the closing laps of the spring race. I would assume that we would be right there running nose to tail once again when the checkered flag falls on Sunday.”

Johnson has four wins – including three in a row from 2007 to 2008 and four wins in a stretch of five races concluding with this race in 2009. Those four victories are included in his 12 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 18 career starts at PIR. He was 14th in last year’s race and fourth at this track in March.

From a perception standpoint, however, many of the fans appear to be rallying around Keselowski, hoping to see a fresh face win the championship.

“It makes me smile,” Johnson said Friday. “I really don’t care. I’m doing my job. I’ve worked my entire life to get to this point in my career. I wasn’t around to see the (Richard) Petty era, but I know or I can only assume that a lot of people were tired of seeing The King win. I know that a lot of people were tired of seeing (Dale) Earnhardt win. I lived it firsthand in watching Jeff Gordon go through that very same thing after his fourth championship.

“It’s not that I’m in this unique situation. We go back through and pull the clips from previous champions and guys that have been on runs before, and it’s the same stuff. It’s absolutely the same stuff. I’m not doing anything different than Gordon, Petty, Earnhardt -- in fact I’m awfully damn proud to be in that lump of guys that had to go from cheers to boos and when they get back to cheering you again is when you stop winning. I don’t want the cheers; I’ll keep the boos. That’s fine.”

But in the driver/owner motorhome lot, those who compete against Johnson have the utmost respect in his ability.

“I haven’t had anybody specifically point out the competition with Brad,” Johnson said. “I’ve had guys talk about here you are in position again, give me some encouragement. I feel like I have a lot of friends in the garage area, and people are maybe, they are not happy to see me in position to win a championship, but I think a lot of people respect the position we are in and what the team has done, what I have done. I think that respect shows on the racetrack, too. There has been a lot of respectful driving around Brad and I on the racetrack, and guys will let us race for this thing. It’s been good.”

Johnson, the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, realizes that Keselowski is going to up his game even more. He is he going to fight for this championship and become even more aggressive if that is what it takes.

“I really feel like he was extremely aggressive and had that mindset of going for broke,” Johnson said. “But we all evolve as drivers, and I think he was more in control of his vehicle Sunday night than he was when he was new to the sport. Then the other thing is certain drivers and I’ve been a part of it, too, you have a magnet for a certain car. It was Carl (Edwards) and Brad that had that issue that was going, and where a lot of that came from I don’t really recall him having big issue with other drivers.

“That is the way I have to enter each race -- I have to expect the best out of them, and I’ve said that through the whole Chase. When there were 12 of us that had a shot, I was focused on all 12, and then it’s worked its way down to really just one car. We are here to race. We need to get every point that we can and expect the most out of the No. 2 (Keselowski).”

Keselowski has never won at PIR, where he has just one top-five and one-top 10 in six career starts. He was 18th last November and fifth in March 2012.

“We'll probably need to win one of the next two races,” Keselowski said. “I feel like Phoenix is a whole different animal. I know you want to bring the stats up where he's so dominant. But they repaved last year, so it's not the same track. So I don't feel like a notebook there is that significant. Other than the past two races there where we've been just as good in both races, I felt like we may have been a little better in the fall than he was, and he was probably a little better in the spring. Looking at it that way, I'd say it's probably a head's up match going into Phoenix and probably the same going into Homestead. We just need to win the head's up matches.

“Our mindset heading into Phoenix is exactly the same as it was going into Texas. If we keep running the way we are running, I like our chances. Now, there are some things that I may need to place more focus on over the next two races, especially on pit road. Those are things that are in my control, and I will take those necessary steps. I really enjoyed the race Jimmie (Johnson) and I had at Texas last weekend. We raced hard, didn’t wreck each other and at the end of the day were able to shake hands and move on to Phoenix. Hopefully we can do it again this weekend, as long as the Miller Lite Dodge is the car that ends up in Victory Lane. Since the repave at Phoenix, I think we’ve been pretty competitive there, and I’m excited about the new car we are bringing. I’m ready to get back at it.”

These are the only two drivers with a legitimate chance at winning the 2012 Sprint Cup title. Clint Bowyer is third, 36 points out and Kasey Kahne is back in fourth, 58 points out of the lead. Two-time Daytona 500 winner and 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth is fifth, 72 out – the same number of points out of first as four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, but Kenseth gets the position based on tie-breaker.

Denny Hamlin is seventh, 73 points out of the lead, and two-time Brickyard 400 winner and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart is eighth, 80 points out of the lead and about to be mathematically eliminated.

Martin Truex, Jr. is ninth, also 80 points out of first, with Greg Biffle rounding out the top 10, 83 behind the leader. Kevin Harvick, the 2003 Brickyard 400 winner, is 11th, 101 points out of the lead. Harvick could be set to join Stewart and Danica Patrick as a driver at Stewart-Haas Racing next season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a lock to finish last in the Chase, 151 points out of the lead, after missing two races in the Chase while recovering from a concussion.

And Danica Patrick, the 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and the only female driver ever to lead the Indianapolis 500, concludes her limited Cup schedule in 2012 this weekend at Phoenix. She will be a full-time Cup driver in 2013.

“I think it’s difficult to establish what my expectation will be right now for Sprint Cup next year,” Patrick said Friday. “I think that it is going to be a build from where we are right now. I think Tony Gibson (crew chief) and I still … we should probably have a very specific conversation, I think it will happen over the winter, about exactly what our expectation level should be at the beginning of the season. It probably varies track to track a little bit, but overall where do we hope to qualify, then where do we hope to race, and what do we hope that happens with lap time in the race and competitiveness with that. I think that will be something that we will sort of establish over the winter when we have time to reflect and think about it and look forward to next year. Right now, I feel like it is just about getting familiar with each other and getting these two races under our belt.”

Patrick offered her perspective on the two drivers fighting it out for the 2012 Cup championship.

“Well, you obviously have Jimmie (Johnson), who has done it a handful of times,” she said. “It’s an incredible feat, and he’s on his way to continue to break more records there probably. I think it’s definitely an interesting story with Brad (Keselowski) and how he’s only been in the series for a short amount of time and accomplishing great things early. We saw the success in Nationwide, as well, with him. Yeah, probably a little bit different approaches, maybe.

“I look forward to watching it. I’m not going to be racing Cup next weekend, so I’ll be sitting on pit lane watching it all go down, and watching the excitement like everyone else will. I think they are both good stories, I think everybody loves to see a legacy and a dynasty like Jimmie has. That’s just something really special in sports. Brad’s story is just new and exciting.”

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