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Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Will mind games get to Keselowski?

By David Newton
ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- I'm standing in front of an empty chair that awaits five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson for breakout interviews. No other reporters are fighting me for position because no other reporters are here.

Or seem very interested in being here.

A few feet away, more than a dozen reporters and several television crews are gathered around the empty chair that awaits points leader Brad Keselowski. They are poised to ask what winning the title will mean to him and his family that almost went bankrupt keeping him in racing, what it will mean to give team owner Roger Penske his first Cup title.

It is almost as if the title has been conceded to Keselowski.

This is what Johnson wants. He's been in that other chair before. He knows the pressure that begins to mount on the Thursday before the Sunday finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET, ESPN), when the driver finally is away from the controlled environment at home where you don't have to think about what's on the line.

He knows how the mere questions in this situation force you to assume things you don't want to before you've accomplished your goal.

He knows that will create pressure not only for Keselowski but for everyone on his No. 2 Penske Racing team because it's something they haven't faced before.

And he smiles now just as he smiled earlier when he and Keselowski were under the spotlight during the more formal part of the day on stage.

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson said he really wanted all the reporters to go talk to Brad Keselowski on Thursday.

"I was enjoying the questions and enjoying the spotlight being over there," he said to the few who finally gathered around him. "As a matter of fact, what the hell are y'all doing here? Go over there and ask questions."

Yes, Keselowski's 20-point lead seems insurmountable when you consider he merely has to finish 15th to win the title no matter what Johnson does. It seems even more insurmountable when you consider he hasn't finished worse than 11th in the past 11 races and has done so only once in the past 19.

It seems even more insurmountable when you consider that no driver has come from this far back -- translating the old points system into this one -- in the final race and that only four drivers have lost the lead in the final race in the previous 62 years of the sport.

But it's not a layup, as Johnson reminded everyone several times.

And until Keselowski and everybody on his team prove they can handle the pressure that comes from this weekend, Johnson has hope.

"The thing that I know, regardless of the prodding and poking I can do, that moment is coming," Johnson said. "The 'a-ha' moment comes for everyone that is in that championship battle.

"If I can plant that seed and help spur that moment along, then cool. But I didn't come in here with a huge agenda today, thinking I was going to make a difference in that, because I know those moments are going to come."

Johnson did prod, though. It wasn't a Don King-heavyweight-bout-megaphone-type prodding. It was a subtle scratch-your-fingers-down-the-blackboard reminder to Keselowski that he hasn't won the title.

His best anecdote was the IndyCar finale in which Penske driver Will Power entered with a seemingly insurmountable 17-point lead, crashed on Lap 55 and lost the title by three points.

Johnson also brought up the blown tire he had last week at Phoenix to put him in this situation.

"Yeah, I definitely want to plant a seed," Johnson said.

This wasn't the kind of trash talk Tony Stewart delivered to Carl Edwards a year ago when he entered with a three-point deficit and left with a third title based on a tiebreaker. This wasn't the mind games Kevin Harvick and Johnson played on Denny Hamlin two years ago when Hamlin blew a 15-point lead to Johnson.

At the same time, Keselowski appears mentally stronger than Edwards and Hamlin -- coincidentally the two drivers who forced him to be stronger with their on-track retaliation early in his career.

"Remember, there are two kinds of pressure -- pressure applied and pressure felt," Keselowski said when asked whether Johnson's pressure tactics were working. "Certainly, he is trying to apply pressure. Certainly, I don't feel any."

He laughed. He appeared to be one cool customer with so much on the line. He scoffed at Johnson's notion that questions about family and the importance of winning the title for others would knock him out of his comfort zone.

"I want the pressure," Keselowski said. "That's what makes it worth something. Without those questions, why am I doing this? I'm just driving a car in a circle. Without having a motivation, it doesn't mean anything. You can't strip away your motivation just to remove yourself from pressure, because then you can't justify your existence."

Maybe the magnitude of what he's on the verge of accomplishing won't get to Keselowski. Johnson admitted the 28-year-old from Michigan has handled everything well so far.

Brad Keselowski
Everyone loves Brad Keselowski's style of racing and his brash attitude.

Johnson also said he believes that somebody, whether it's a tire carrier or crew chief Paul Wolfe, who has been almost flawless, will crack under the pressure.

He says it so convincingly you believe it.

Maybe that's because this is Johnson's only hope. Or maybe it's because he has felt that pressure and seen how it works.

"This just isn't any other race," Johnson said. "This is the championship race, and there's a lot that comes with that. I'm very optimistic."

Every time Johnson and Keselowski hit the track the next three days, the focus will be on them. There might be 41 other cars here, but only two have a chance to win the title.

And that, Johnson insisted, brings even more questions and more pressure.

"Out of my Cup experience, today starts it," he said. "Today really does."

Keselowski doesn't seem fazed. During one question when it playfully was asked whether he is confident or just too dumb to recognize the pressure, he jokingly said, "I think my question is how dumb am I?"

When told the question was asked with all due respect, Keselowski responded, "I think you've watched 'Talladega Nights' too much."

In other words, Keselowski isn't dumb or intimidated by the pressure. He doesn't plan to enter the race trying to protect his lead as we've seen other champions do here in the past.

He plans to do the same thing he's been doing the past few months, which makes Johnson's task tougher on and off the track.

"One of my favorite movies in the whole wide world is this documentary on Ayrton Senna," Keselowski said. "There's this really powerful scene that sticks with me when I think about this weekend. They were coming down to the closing laps of the race, and they told him to slow down, you have a huge lead. And he wrecked.

"I think of that as I approach this weekend. I'm going to go out there and play my game, race my way. That's got us to this point, and if we do that, we'll be fine."

But to Johnson's point, this isn't like any other race weekend. There's a pressure he's banking will hit Keselowski or somebody on his team at some point.

That's why he can sit with his paltry crowd and smile as Keselowski gets all the attention.

"For whatever reason, I'm at peace with my situation," Johnson said. "I don't want to be in this situation, but I am strangely optimistic and I can't explain why. There's feelings people have."