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Johnson, Keselowski Turn Chase Into Two-Man Showdown At Texas

It’s “three to go” in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, and the battle for this year’s title is down to two “Brickyard Legends” as they prepare for the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson is a four-time winner at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Crown Royal presents the “Your Hero’s Name Here” 400 at the Brickyard and a five-time Cup champion. He has taken the points lead from Brad Keselowski, who drives for Roger Penske – the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history. Keselowski is attempting to deliver Penske his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

Johnson took a two-point lead over Keselowski after leading the final 108 laps of the TUMS Fast Relief 500 last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, earning his seventh career victory at the flat short-track in Virginia.

Clint Bowyer of Michael Waltrip Racing is third in the standings, but 26 points is a pretty big deficit with only three races to go. Former Indianapolis resident and USAC star Kasey Kahne is just three points behind Bowyer in fourth place, so his hole is even deeper.

Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing is out of championship consideration in fifth place, 49 points out of the lead. He suffered electrical issues that forced him to the garage after leading last Sunday at Martinsville.

Johnson has been in this position before and is cautiously confident.

“Honestly, it’s really been the same thing throughout the Chase, and that’s to go out and get as many points as possible,” Johnson said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. “I’m in the mindset of sitting on the pole and winning the race. I think that’s what you have to do with as tight as the points have been and with how strong the competitors have been on the racetrack.

“Denny’s troubles have put a gap for Brad and I over third spot. And I guess, in some respects, you can look at two guys and a two-guy breakaway right now, but I’m not putting too much stock in that. A mid-pack finish for myself and Brad will bring everybody back into it, and that’s not too big of a margin in my eyes. So I’m still very focused in getting as many points as possible and trying to win the races.”

While Keselowski has playfully sent a few verbal jabs in Johnson’s direction, five-time Cup champion Johnson is too focused on his goal of a sixth title.

“I wasn’t aware of any verbal jabs yet, but it’s racing,” Johnson said. “There are different aspects to it, I think. Personalities of drivers: Some are eager for those opportunities and like to play it out in the media and stir the pot. It’s really not been my outlet. I like to go out and perform like I did last week and send a message on Friday with a strong qualifying effort. If that doesn’t work out, make sure that I rebound and come back on Sunday with a strong performance.

“So I look over the last couple of weeks and what our team was able to accomplish at Kansas with a damaged race car, and then what we did last week is quite a statement in that we’re serious about this championship and we’re doing the right things to go out there and try to win this thing.”

Johnson has become a master in the Chase era of NASCAR that began in 2004. He believes experience counts in his drive for a sixth Cup title.

“Without a doubt, experience is so helpful,” said Johnson, who drove to victory in this year’s Crown Royal presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard powered by “My friends, after we were able to win the first, second, so on and so forth, everybody would share with me through the season how stressed I was. I knew I was stressed, but I thought I was hiding it well. Year one, I wasn’t hiding it well. By year five, I found a way to enjoy myself down the stretch in the final race. That has led to this year.

“Last year, I didn’t enjoy myself because we weren’t performing like we wanted to. It’s hard to have fun when you don’t get the results you want. This year, we’ve been working hard; the results are there. It’s been even more fun and more relaxed, and I feel we’re doing a better job as a result.”

Johnson, the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, has one win (November 2007), eight top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 18 starts at the 1.5-mile, high-banked Texas oval. He finished 14th in this race last year and was second in this season’s April race.

“It’s a little bit older, so we have a higher tire wear,” Johnson said of the track surface. “Most cases, I don’t want to say you’ll never take two, but four tires really make a big difference there. We’ll race from the line to the wall, something we weren’t able to see at Kansas. This new asphalt we have at places like Charlotte, Michigan, Kansas, Phoenix, it doesn’t wear the tire, and the car gets really nervous. There’s a lot of grip. When you get close to the edge of traction, the car gets nervous and starts wandering around a little bit and then spins out on you.

“Texas doesn’t have that feeling. You can actually slide the car, drift it around. It’s really just the interaction between the tire and the surface itself. Texas, although it’s fast and plenty challenging, you can at least drift it a little bit and not get in trouble.”

While Johnson is in a “taking” mood at Texas Motor Speedway, wanting to create some distance between himself and Keselowski, his sponsor is in a “giving” mood to help out those who were dramatically affected by Hurricane Sandy that hit the eastern United States earlier this week.

Lowe’s will donate $1 million to disaster relief and rebuilding efforts in communities affected by Sandy. Lowe’s will work with its national nonprofit partners to provide both immediate and long-term support to local communities across the Northeast.

As part of the $1 million pledge and to help raise awareness for hurricane victims, Lowe’s will match Johnson’s earnings from the race at Texas Motor Speedway, with a minimum donation of $250,000 to the American Red Cross. Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports together will donate an additional $48,000 to the Red Cross. In addition to the Red Cross donation, Lowe’s will use the remainder of its $1 million commitment to fund local projects in areas of greatest need as identified by its national nonprofit partners.

Starting Nov. 1, Lowe’s stores throughout the United States and began accepting donations to the Red Cross. The donations will help provide food, shelter, emotional support and other assistance to those impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Donations also can be made by texting REDCROSS to 90999 or calling 1-800-RED-CROSS (1-800-733-2767).

Back on the racetrack, Keselowski is thankful for his support from Penske Racing.

Although he lost the points lead last Sunday at Martinsville, Keselowski had an impressive effort when he drove from 32nd starting position to finish sixth. That kept him locked in an extremely tight points race with Johnson.

“When you have a team like we have on the Miller Lite Dodge, it’s easy to stay calm in the face of adversity,” Keselowski said. “We all have each other’s back. We like our role is in this Chase. While we aren’t being overlooked by any means, there are many who think that we are still too young of a team to seriously challenge the 48 team. We like it that way.

“In reality, we are a very good race team that is primed to take this fight right down to the last lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month. I’m very confident in our abilities at Texas this weekend. The mile-and-a-half tracks have been really good to us this year. We had an awesome car in April at Texas – probably the best car I’ve ever had there – but fuel issues kept us from challenging for the win. This weekend, I’m expecting to challenge for the win.”

Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe, explained what makes racing at Texas so unique.

“Texas is a place with a lot of unique characteristics,” Wolfe said. “The track has bumps in Turn 2 and has aged to where grip becomes a big factor late into a run. We want to set the car up to run the bottom of the track, but yet, still have the flexibility to run various lines through the corners. One of the great things about Texas is that you can pass if you have your car set up to run the different lines that the surface gives you. We want to qualify better, that will never change, but this is a track where it’s not a hindrance if you start mid-pack. If you have a good race car, you can get to the front. I believe we should have a fast Miller Lite Dodge on Sunday.”

Keselowski has never finished in the top 10 at Texas. His best finish was 14th in the first race in 2010. He was 24th last November and 36th this past April.

With Bowyer third, Kahne fourth and Hamlin rounding out the top five the next “Brickyard Legend” is four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who is also virtually out of contention at 54 points out.

Gordon has one win, eight top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 23 starts. He was sixth last November and fourth this past April.

Martin Truex Jr. of MWR is seventh, 63 points out of the lead, Matt Kenseth of Roush Fenway Racing is eighth, 65 points out of the lead, and teammate Greg Biffle is ninth, 69 out of first place.

Indiana native Tony Stewart will not successfully defend last year’s Sprint Cup championship. Two-time Brickyard 400 winner and three-time Cup champion Stewart, from Columbus, Ind., is 10th in the standings, 71 points out of the lead.

He has two wins, five top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 21 TMS starts. He won this race last year which was pivotal to his dramatic charge to the championship but finished 24th at Texas this past April.

Kevin Harvick, the final “Brickyard Legend” in this year’s Chase, is 11th in the standings, 88 points behind the leader. He has no wins, three top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 19 starts. He was 13th last November and ninth in April 2012.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who returned to Sprint Cup competition last Sunday at Martinsville after missing two races while recovering from a concussion, will finish the season 12th in the standings, 140 points out with three races to go.

Danica Patrick, the 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year who has the highest finishing position for a female driver in the history of the Indy 500 when she finished third in 2009, returns to Cup action at Texas and will work with a new crew chief for the No. 10 GoDaddy Racing Chevrolet as Tony Gibson takes over the role previously held by Stewart-Haas Racing Competition Director Greg Zipadelli.

“I know Tony about as well as I know anyone else at Stewart-Haas, other than Zippy (Greg Zipadelli),” Patrick said. “I’ve always felt really comfortable around Tony. I feel like he’s always listened to me. I feel like he has a lot of respect, and I have a lot of respect for him. I get along with him great, and, most of all, I trust in what they decide for me because I’m not experienced enough to make those calls. That’s why I went with a team like Stewart-Haas, because I know they’re going to give me what I need.”

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