Jimmie Johnson is the king of mind games; he doesnt fall victim to them, and hes got five trophies as proof.
He doesnt let the pressure rattle him, and as a veteran of seven championship finales, he knows how hard it can be to tune out the noise surrounding the title-deciding race. So Johnson was more than willing to poke, prod and remind Brad Keselowski just whats at stake at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend.
Keselowski takes a 20-point lead over Johnson into Sundays finale, and he only needs to finish 15th or better to win his first Sprint Cup title. It would give team owner Roger Penske his first championship at NASCARs top level in 29 years of competition.
So Johnson opened Thursdays championship contenders news conference by referencing this seasons IndyCar championship, where Penske driver Will Power took a 17-point lead into the finale but crashed early and coughed away the title.
It seemed like it was a lay-up race, and things can happen, Johnson said.
Then he talked about the foolishness in assuming Keselowski will roll to a 15th-place finish Sunday and clinch the title.
This garage area is tough; the weight of the race, I dont care who you are, itll show up at some point in time, and thoughts will run through your head, and with all that being said, a 15th-place finish is not a lay-up for these guys, Johnson said. I have a little bit of stock in that. Well see how they respond.
Keselowski sat square-jawed looking straight ahead, seemingly tuning out the attempt to get inside his head. The 28-year-old knows drivers have fallen victim to these games before and has insisted during the entire 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship that he wouldnt repeat their mistakes.
A nervous Denny Hamlin sat between Johnson and Kevin Harvick two years ago, his legs shaking under the stage as his rivals lobbed barbs at him for almost an hour. Hamlin completed his collapse three days later, when Johnson rallied to win his fifth title.
Last season, Tony Stewart charmed his way through the news conference at an unamused Carl Edwards expense. Stewart then snatched the championship away on a tiebreaker by winning the finale.
So Keselowski knew exactly what his counterpart was up to Thursday.
Certainly, hes trying to apply pressure, Keselowski said with a smirk. Certainly, I dont feel any.
Keselowski has talked at length of late about the pressure hes felt in his life. He came to Homestead in the Truck Series in 2004 and failed to make the race. In 2006, his familys race team went broke trying to get him to the track. When he finally got his big break, at Chicagoland in the Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports in 2007, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. sent him out on a track hed never seen before, telling him if he wrecked the car he wouldnt get a chance to drive it next week.
Now that was pressure, Keselowski said. Moments like that make this seem not so bad, and they also build up a level of confidence where I feel like this is quite a bit easier than those moments.
Keselowski won six races for Earnhardt before moving on to Penske Racing and a Sprint Cup Series ride, and with a month to go in the season, Earnhardt predicted Keselowski would hang with Johnson all the way until the end.
I dont think hes going to crack; I think hes going to be hard to beat, Earnhardt said. I think he will be a tough competitor all the way through. Brad has been waiting on this opportunity all his life so I dont expect him to crack under the pressure.
Keselowski opened the Chase with a win at Chicago and picked up another victory at Dover to take control of the championship fight, but Johnson used consecutive wins at Martinsville and Texas to take a seven-point lead into Phoenix last weekend. A blown tire there caused Johnson to crash, and now Keselowski has a nice cushion thats certainly giving him some peace of mind.
Johnson said the weekend is young.
He may be very comfortable and calm now. It may not happen until hes in the car, but at some point that magnitude hits, Johnson said. Ive lived through it five times. Thats a turning moment, and well see how he responds. This just isnt any other race. This is the championship race, and theres a lot that comes with that.
Keselowski insists he wouldnt have it any other way.
I want the pressure. Thats what I want. Thats what makes it worth something, he said. Without those questions, why am I doing that? Im just driving a car in a circle. Without having a motivation, it doesnt mean anything. You cant strip away your motivation just to remove yourself from pressure because then you cant justify your existence.