- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Brad Keselowski might not be in position for his first Sprint Cup title if he had not received the call to replace suspended driver Ted Musgrave for one 2007 Camping World Truck Series race at Memphis.
Jimmie Johnson might not be in position for a sixth Cup title if had he not driven head-on into the wall at Watkins Glen in William Herzog's Nationwide Series car in 2000.
Funny how life works.
Sometimes it doesn't matter how much talent you possess. Sometimes, as in the cases of Keselowski and Johnson: as they prepare for Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway separated by 20 points -- it's somewhat of a fluke circumstance.
Keselowski was impressive enough in that one Truck series race he drove for owner Bob Germain that it caught the attention of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who put him into a full-time Nationwide Series ride. That eventually led to his current Sprint Cup ride for Penske Racing.
And Keselowski wouldn't have gotten the call from Germain if Mark Martin hadn't recommended him because he couldn't drive, and if Musgrave hadn't insisted on this unknown driver over veteran Randy LaJoie.
Johnson's crash at Watkins Glen was so spectacular that it made Jeff Gordon put a face with a name, which eventually led the four-time champion to recommend Johnson to team owner Rick Hendrick.
Now here are Keselowski and Johnson, prepared to slug it out for NASCAR's grandest prize. Johnson is being compared to the greatest drivers in history. Keselowski is being compared by team owner Roger Penske to legendary IndyCar driver Rick Mears.
Who knows where either would be had the stars not aligned in the strangest of circumstances.
"I think he would probably have made it still, but it might have just taken a little bit longer," Earnhardt said of Keselowski. "It might have taken awhile to get that opportunity."
Keselowski and Johnson have storied paths that are similar, yet distinctly different. They each grew up in families without a lot of money, and what money they had was put into racing. Each has brothers who would give anything to be in this position, but neither got the break or had as much talent to get here.
They were relatively quiet, shy figures who knew little about life outside of racing, but have blossomed into confident, sometimes outspoken, leaders of the sport.
"He was just a babe in the woods," Germain recalled of Keselowski when they first met. "He's come a long way in a very short period of time. There was no question he had a lot of talent. "But there are a lot of people that have a lot of talent and don't win a Nationwide or Cup championship."
Or get the chance to.
Keselowski and Johnson have made the most of their chances. Now here they are, in South Florida vying for the title. Who wins will be determined not only by how they got here, but by what they have done lately.
Let's break that down:
Keselowski: We keep saying he hasn't won a title, but he won the 2010 Nationwide Series championship. He also has nine wins in his first three Cup seasons. That's only five fewer than Johnson had at the same point, and Johnson was good enough to be a serious contender in each of those years.
Johnson: Go ahead and pencil him in for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He already has more championships (five) than all but Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. His 60 wins rank eighth on the sport's career victory list after only 11 years. Kind of an unfair comparison, but it has to be done.
Keselowski: That Penkse compares Keselowski to Mears, who won four Indianapolis 500s, is impressive enough. Keselowski also has proved to be one of the most versatile drivers in the sport, having won at all sizes and shapes of tracks. His average finish of 5.3 in the Chase, if it holds up, is second only to the 4.9 Carl Edwards had a year ago.
Johnson: You seldom hear Johnson compared to Petty, Earnhardt or David Pearson. Many want to credit his success to crew chief Chad Knaus and the Hendrick Motorsports machine. They're wrong. He could drive the wheels off a car in any era with any driver.
Keselowski: It has become popular to compare Paul Wolfe to Chad Knaus, but that's not entirely fair. Wolfe and Keselowski make decisions more by committee. Wolfe actually takes input from Keselowski and lets him make calls. The combination has worked flawlessly.
Johnson: Chad Knaus is Chad Knaus. He has five titles. He is a future Hall of Famer. His relationship with Johnson is different. He ultimately makes the calls. Funny example: Last week at Phoenix, he asked Johnson for thoughts on whether to stop. Johnson said he had no idea. Knaus responded, "You're no help at all." But the two make it work better than any other team.
Keselowski: Dodge may be a lame-duck manufacturer, but it has doubled up resources to help Penske Racing send it out in style. After a few issues with fuel injection early in the season, the No. 2 has performed at the highest level in terms of power and fuel mileage. No engine failures there.
Johnson: Johnson has had two engine failures this year. And he wouldn't face the deficit he has if it weren't for a blown tire last week at Phoenix, with a car that never really had the speed to compete for a win. He started off slow here too.
Mental and physical toughness
Keselowski: He won at Pocono last year only a few days after breaking his foot. Doesn't get much tougher than that. He got an upgrade to the workout facility at Penske Racing, so we know he works out. And he eats reasonably healthy. I saw him searching for a fruit parfait in the wee hours of the morning in Las Vegas once. He appears to be handling Johnson's mind games pretty well too. He brushes them off with better one-liners than the lines meant to pressure him.
Johnson: I actually ran into Johnson on a 10-mile run earlier this week in Charlotte. The dude gets up at 5:30 a.m. twice a week to swim for an hour and a half. Keselowski may be coming in at 5:30 a.m. Johnson runs triathlons. Pressure? He says he wants to win eight titles. Enough said.
Keselowski: Roger Penske is the greatest owner in all of motorsports, but he doesn't have a Sprint Cup championship.
Johnson: Rick Hendrick has 10 Sprint Cup championships and is the greatest owner in NASCAR.
Keselowski: Four starts and an average finish of 20.2 doesn't bode well, but as we've seen throughout the Chase, Keselowski is capable of stepping up his game even at tracks where he has struggled. The numbers to look at are what Keselowski has done in the Chase at 1.5-mile tracks. One win and an average finish of 5.5.
Johnson: This is one of the few tracks where Johnson hasn't won and he has an average finish of 13.5. But he has had two seconds and a third, has started on the pole twice and has seven top-10s in 11 starts. To be fair, he has never had to win here to win the title. In the tale of the 1.5-mile Chase tracks this year, Johnson has a win and a 3.75 average finish.
Keselowski: Kyle Busch still owes Keselowski for running through him while leading late at Watkins Glen. Were it not for that, Busch would be in the Chase instead of playing out the season. Tony Stewart also seems to have issues with Keselowski racing hard. But for a guy who seemingly ticked off everybody a few years ago, Keselowski has certainly earned the respect of his peers.
Johnson: Nobody is more respected. He even gets along with Kurt Busch these days, inviting him to a Charlotte art gallery recently to view photos of his picture book. Barely a year ago, the two were at each other's throats. Other drivers respect him so much that they give way to him on the track in these situations.
Keselowski: Sam Hornish Jr. is his only teammate on the track, and he isn't likely to be running up front where he can get in Johnson's way. Off the track, he is neighbors with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most famous friend he has outside of the guitarist for Kid Rock.
Johnson: Johnson has more celebrity friends than many celebrities: singers Nick Lachey and Darius Rucker, actress Angie Harmon and former NFL star Jason Sehorn. He has lots of friends on the track as well, including three teammates who could be in position to race Keselowski hard if necessary.
Keselowski: He has more than 326,000 Twitter followers and the entire sport of "48 Haters" on his side. He was fined $25,000 this week for carrying a cellphone in his car after NASCAR banned it following his Daytona 500 red-flag tweet-up. He has no fear.
Johnson: He has 332,000 followers, which seems kind of low for a five-time champion. He has a baby going through the terrible 2s. He's 20 points down, and nobody in NASCAR history has come from that far back (adjusting old points systems to the new one) to win the title in the last race.
Most of the advantages go to Johnson. The points and history say Keselowski will win it.
So maybe it will come down to something fluky. They have been there before.
16dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information