Chase leaders must watch first lap

NASCAR Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson. (BRIAN BLANCO/Reuters)

NASCAR Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson. (BRIAN BLANCO/Reuters)

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:47 PM ET

The challenge for Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski is to keep their heads at the start of Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

The problem both of them face in doing this is that they will start mid-pack on a one-mile oval that leaves them susceptible to being caught in someone else's wreck.

The pair go into the race with Johnson holding on to a slim seven-point lead in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

After qualifying on Friday, however, Keselowski will start 14th on Sunday. Johnson will start 24th -- his worst starting position in this year's Chase.

On Saturday in the final two practices, Keselowski looked much better in race trim, posting the ninth-fastest lap while Johnson was 11th-fastest, a big upgrade from qualifying.

Johnson said that regardless of his performance in qualifying and practice, he thinks he and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team can use their experience at PIR not only to get to the front in a hurry, but win the race outright and take a bigger points lead into the final race of the season next week at Homestead Miami Speedway.

"At this point, regardless of our points situation, I still came here ready to race and we've won some races here and have been able to run in the top-five which is very important to have a comfortable lead going into Homestead," Johnson said.

The five-time champion does have some pressure on him at PIR.

There has been a lot of commentary this past week about where in NASCAR history Johnson will find himself if he gets a sixth, seventh or even a record eighth championship.

With that, comes a certain amount of criticism among NASCAR fans who are looking for a fresh face -- Keselowski -- in the winner's circle.

Johnson contends he pays no attention to such talk.

"I still live my life and live each day just looking at what's right in front of me," he said. "I've been asked the question a lot about long term and where I want to be, the mark I want to leave on the sport and it's something that I haven't put a lot of thought into."

Johnson said NASCAR history shows the sport's greatest drivers -- Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt -- both faced similar fan reaction during their championship winning seasons.

"I've worked my entire life to get to this point in my career," he said. "I wasn't around to see the Petty era, but I know or I can only assume that a lot of people were tired of seeing the King win. I know that a lot of people were tired of seeing Earnhardt win."

There is no such pressure on Keselowski, who is seeking his and the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge's first Sprint Cup title.

Keselowski is even able to joke about it when he was asked this week what it would take for him to win it all this season.

He answered by referring to last year's champion, Tony Stewart.

"The driver scoring the most points wins -- isn't that what Tony Stewart said?" Keselowski quipped. "He's pretty smart. He's won two (Chase titles), so I'd take some notes from him.

"You just got to have a great team. This is a team sport whether anyone will admit it or not. It's the people that you're surrounded by."

As for how Keselowski plans to ovetake Johnson, he said it will be by fighhting for every lap in these final two races.

"I going to push him as hard as I can," he said. "That's how I plan on racing him but at the same time just because I'm going to make him fight hard that doesn't mean that I don't respect him.

"He's earned his spot in the sport and his success and deserves that credit but I'm not about to lay over."

FINISH LINES

Four-time Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais has signed a multi-year contract with Dragon Racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series. The native of Le Mans, France, raced a part time schedule last season with the Jay Penske-owned team ... A decade after he won the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship, Brian Vickers will "defend" it in 2013 in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota ... The 2013 schedules for both the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series are expected to be announced next week, prior to the championship races at Homestead Miami Speedway ... Nationwide championship contender Elliott Sadler still has not announced his plans for next season after telling Richard Childress Racing he won't be back in the No. 2 Chevrolet for another season.

 


GORDON: LONG WAY TO GO FOR FORT ERIE SPEEDWAY

Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon is elated that the proposed Canadian Motor Speedway in Fort Erie has Ontario Municipal Board approval to begin the building process.

And he should be. He is, after all, the guy who designed it.

Gordon warns, however, that there is still a long way to go before actual race cars will be roaring around the one-mile oval that is envisioned by the racetrack's owners.

"There is still a lot of things that need to be done," Gordon said at Phoenix International Raceway as he prepared for Sunday's AdvoCare 500. "It is a long process."

The 65,000-seat track still must go through an environmental assessment study before the heavy equipment can begin the construction work on the massive project that is expected to cost more than $100 million.

"The OMB approval is a great step for us," Gordon said. "It just takes a long time to get all the approvals that are needed.

"Now the next step is to put all the funding in place, which has been in the works for a long time, and start to make it a reality and see race cars out there one day."

The project is being guided by Toronto businessman and CMS executive director Azhar Mohammad with majority ownership listed as The International Investor, a Kuwait-based private-equity investor.

Gordon signed on to design the racing surface after he was approached by Paxton Waters, an architecture firm based in Indianapolis, that worked with another former NASCAR champion, Rusty Wallace, to build Iowa Speedway in 2006.

"I've been saying this for a while, it's been a great experience for me to be a part of it from the beginning design stages with Paxton Waters who worked with Rusty on Iowa," Gordon said. "I think we have got a great track design."

The big question mark, of course, is who will race at the track once it is finally constructed.

NASCAR is adamant that as of right now it has no interest or desire to sanction one of its major series -- Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Camping World Trucks -- at a track that hasn't been built.

And Mohammad is careful not to use the NASCAR carrot when talking about the project.

Gordon does think, however, that the Southern Ontario/Western New York market would be hard for NASCAR to ignore once the track is completed.

"Of course you hope that you can get the NASCAR series there, but you can't guarantee that, nobody can," he said.

"I think it's a great market. I think there is tremendous support of fans and companies there. I think it can be a win, win for everybody if we can get it done."

The Fort Erie project does have some stiff competition in trying to attract on of NASCAR's top loops.

The Canadian Tire Motorsports Park is in the final stages of its own multi-million dollar facelift under the guidance of Ron Fellows and his partner Carlo Fidani.

That project is expected to get a Camping World Truck series race next season and is in the running for a Nationwide Series race in 2014.


KESELOWSKI A LIMIT-TESTER

Brad Keselowski wants all his fans to know he does not have a death wish.

Three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart accused the 28-year-old Keselowski of having such a wish after some daring moves during last week's AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Stewart thought that Keselowski was dangerously aggressive in the final laps fighting for the win against Jimmie Johnson.

Keselowski does not agree.

"I'm sorry, but death wish is pretty funny," he said at Phoenix International Raceway. "When you get in a (race) car, to be an elite driver, you turn the fear off. When you get in there, you don't think about those things.

"I think about what am I going to do to win the race today, what chances have I got to take, and that's how I proceed."

Keselowski said that part of being a big-time race car driver is knowing that there is a risk/reward equation that is often the difference between being a winner and an also-ran.

"It's about finding limits, pushing them, breaking them, expanding them and trying again, over and over again," he said. "It's that constant cycle and when that happens, it happens because you're not afraid.

"That's what makes an elite race car driver, someone who finds the boundary, crosses over it, comes back and finds a way to move it a little bit further and goes again and again and again.

"And that's my job."

In a final word on the matter, Keselowski said that if Stewart was right, the same thing could be said of every driver at the Sprint Cup level.

"I think that to some degree everybody who gets in a race car and decides to try to make a living out of driving a car as fast as possible has a little bit of a death wish," he said. "But I don't feel like I have any more than anyone else."


STEWART, HARVICK PLAY DOWN RUMOUR

Rumours are rampant that Kevin Harvick will leave Richard Childress Racing to join his pal Tony Stewart's NASCAR Sprint Cup team after next season.

Harvick's contract at RCR to drive he No. 29 Chevrolet runs out at the end of the 2013 season.

Harvick has spent his entire NASCAR career with RCR after taking over in 2001 following the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona.

Neither Stewart or Harvick would confirm or deny the story that was first reported by ESPN.

"I'll tell you this: When we have something to tell you ... we'll tell you. I've always said that," Stewart said. "So you guys can throw darts, but when we've got something different to tell you that's different than what we've already got going on, we'll tell you."

As for Harvick, he was just as tight-lipped as Stewart.

"I'm looking forward to finishing out this season on a strong note with RCR and continuing to build our program going into the 2013 season, with the ultimate goal of winning a championship," ESPN quoted Harvick as saying. "Anything beyond that, once I know what my future plans are set I'll let you know."

But Stewart Haas Racing spokesman Mike Arning said the team always has envisioned being a four-car outfit.

SHR will field three cars in 2013 for Stewart, Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick.

"Stewart-Haas Racing's driver lineup is all set for 2013, but if you're talking about 2014 and if Kevin Harvick is available, that's something the team would have to look at. Any team in this garage would do the same," Arning told the Associated Press. "From the moment Stewart-Haas Racing was formed, becoming a four-car team is something it's been striving for."

 


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