Thursday, January 18, 2018
Sports

NASCAR's Brad Keselowski shakes off Jimmie Johnson's mind games

HOMESTEAD — The thing about what went on Thursday during a news conference at Homestead-Miami Speedway was how Jimmie Johnson did not even try to mask his intentions.

Trailing NASCAR Sprint Cup leader Brad Keselowski by 20 points heading into Sunday's season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400, Johnson got right to work messing with Keselow­ski's head.

That Kese­lowski needs only a 15th-place finish to clinch his first Cup title?

"This is racing. Things happen," Johnson said. "A 15th-place finish is not a layup for these guys."

Johnson, unsolicited, brought up IndyCar's final race in which Will Power, Keselowski's Penske Racing teammate, lost the title because of a spinout. He made sure to explain how the pressure to close out a championship in NASCAR's top rung is crushing and impossible to anticipate until you experience it.

And so it went for 30 minutes as Johnson, 37, looking for any edge to win his sixth title in seven years, picked at Keselowski, 28, in just his third full Sprint Cup season.

"You definitely want to plant a seed," Johnson said later. "The 'aha' moment comes for everyone that's in a championship battle … and if I can plant a seed and help spur that moment, then cool."

This is not a new strategy for Johnson, whose reputation is a competitor who is as comfortable executing a psyche job as a race plan.

Take 2010, when he spent much of the run-up to the final race reminding points leader Denny Hamlin about how he blew a lead the previous week in Phoenix. Hamlin qualified 37th at Homestead, finished 14th after spinning out and Johnson won his fifth straight championship.

Give Keselowski credit, though. The outgoing 2010 Nationwide series champion kept a smile on his face while Johnson chirped and, seemingly, his emotions in check.

"Obviously, I can't say there's no pressure, but there's no more pressure to me at this moment than there was when we started the Chase (for the Championship)," he said. "When we started this chase there was pressure, too. All 10 races pay the same amount of points and if we keep up what we've done over the last 10 races, then we'll be in good shape."

The parry did nothing to stop Johnson from probing for a chink in Keselowski's armor or at least trying to make a dent.

Johnson said several times how fast his car is going to be. He talked about the vagaries of luck and how "this isn't any other race, this is a championship race and there's a lot that comes with that."

"And Brad," Johnson added, "if you'd like me to call you later and remind you of any other examples of guys that didn't pull off the season finale as they would hope, I certainly can."

Good stuff, Rusty Wallace said.

"Look, Johnson's got nothing to lose," the NASCAR Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst said of the psychological attacks. "He's already won five championships. He's bringing his best car; it's the car he won Indianapolis with, which is probably the fastest car on the planet I've seen all year long. He told me he's going for the Hail Mary."

Besides, Wallace added, "This particular race is going to be on Brad. He's got to bring that car home. Brad has to hold it together."

In that context, how Kese­lowski worked a room full of reporters could only be taken as positive.

"A lot of stressed out people in here," Keselowski joked as he walked through the media center, mock concern in his voice. "You guys okay with the pressure?"

A voice in the crowd invited Keselowski to South Beach for drinks.

"I'm not going to be there," he said. "I've got to focus."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]

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