Keselowski taking nothing for granted

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski gets into his number 2 car before a practice...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski gets into his number 2 car before a practice session for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida February 18, 2012. (REUTERS/Brian Blanco)

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:38 PM ET

HOMESTEAD, FLA. - The stage is set for the showdown in South Florida between five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and upstart Brad Keselowski.

It all comes down to 400 miles, 267 laps around Homestead Miami Speedway’s 1.5 mile oval on Sunday afternoon.

Oh sure, there will be 41 other drivers on the track to start the Ford EcoBoost 400, but none of them matter in the championship picture.

Keselowski, the 28-year-old from Rochester Hills, Mich., is hoping that he can drive his No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge into victory lane after only three full seasons in NASCAR’s top loop.

Johnson, from El Cajon, Calif., at 37, nine years Keselowski’s senior, is hoping that his experience will propel him to a sixth championship in the past seven seasons.

Keselowski, however, has the decided advantage with a 20-point bulge over Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.

All he has to do to claim the silverware is to finish 15th or better, no matter what Johnson does.

Stranger things have occurred, of course, and Keselowski only has to look across the Penske Racing shop in Mooresville, N.C., at Will Power to see first hand what can happen with a big points lead going into a season finale.

Power held a 17-point lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay in the IZOD IndyCar Series at Auo Club Speedaway in September only to lose the race and the championship after crashing on Lap 55 of the 250-lap race.

Johnson, remember, also came back from a 17-point deficit at Homestead in 2010 to beat Denny Hamlin.

And he has repeatedly pointed that out to Keselowski this week hoping to get into his head.

Roger Penske, Kesleowski’s and Power’s team owner, who is also seeking his first Sprint Cup championship, said there is no comparing the two drivers or the two circumstances.

“We haven’t even talked about it,” he said. “It’s not even a factor as far as I’m concerned. You have Will Power, who is the best on road courses trying to get his feet under him on ovals and this is a case we’re at a mile and a half track, a place that Brad has excelled this year.

“So to me two different circumstances. Not a discussion item as far as Penske Racing is concerned.”

Johnson, though, is using every opportunity to try to rattle Keselowski, even where the two qualified — separated by just three rows — Keselowski third and Johnson 10th, although Keselowski effectively moves up to second place when pole sitter Joey Logano was forced to a back-up car after wrecking in Saturday practice.

“I’d love to have him right there by me when we start the race and put the pressure on him,” Johnson said.

As far as pressure goes, Keselowski seems, so far, unaffected by either Johnson’s jibes or the extra media attention he is getting as the championship race approaches.

“There’s always pressure,” he said. “There was pressure all year long ... but the pressure is what makes it worth it; that’s part of what makes it special, what makes it mean something, so I’m not going to try to run from it.

“I can deal with it very well.”

Keselowski said he loves the fact he out-qualified the five-time champion, something he wasn’t been able to do at Chicagoland and Texas — two other 1.5 miles tracks — and still finished well.

“Both those race tracks, I felt like we qualified drastically behind them and we were able to get up there,” he said. “And that shows that if you have a great race car, you’ll be able to get the job done.”

Keselowski is not dismissing Johnson, he knows the No. 48 team will be ready on Sunday when the green flag drops.

“I think we all know that Jimmie is going to have great race car and he already has a great team.” he said. “They’ll find a way to make their way up there.

“But that actual track position becomes irrelevant when you have a great team.”

Johnson, not surprisingly, agrees with Keselowski’s assessment after his qualifying effort.

“There are some trends you can carry over and we’ll take what we learned (in qualifying) and apply to our race set-up,” he said. “But tomorrow is a better tale of where everybody is. This schedule is very No. 48-style where we can just focus on one thing on Friday and then turn around on Saturday and work on race trim.”

If Saturday’s final practice for the Sprint Cup cars is any indication of what we will see on Sunday, Keselowski was fourth fastest with a lap of 168.161 m.p.h. while Johnson was only 18th fastest at 166.384 m.p.h.

FINISH LINES

Richard Petty Motorsports has signed both Marcos Ambrose, driver of the No. 9 Ford, and Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Dodge, to new contracts for next season. ... Chase drivers Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin will also start from the back on Sunday after crashing their primary cars in practice Saturday.

PENSKE NEVER TIRES OF WINNING

Roger Penske has won 15 Indianapolis 500s, 12 IndyCar championships and 164 individual races — more than any team owner in North American open wheel racing history.

Yet there was Penske at Homestead Miami Speedway saying that a first win of a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship on Sunday afternoon would top them all.

The 75-year-old from the Detroit suburb of Birmingham is on the cusp of achieving his dream of winning a Cup crown if Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge, finishes 15th or better in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

“This is the pinnacle of achievements that we could get in motor racing,” Penske said. “And to be standing at the end with the American flag in your hand when it’s all over and be champion is something real special, and we’ve not achieved it (yet).”

Penske has been racing stock cars for almost 40 years and this is the closest he has come to the big prize, and it comes with a brash, young driver in Keselowski, who has hasn’t always made friends in NASCAR with his hell bent for leather style of racing.

Penske, however, said that he thinks the 28-year-old from Rochester Hills, Mich., has earned the respect of his peers in the NASCAR garage with his drive to the top this season.

“I think the most important thing that’s happened, he’s gained the respect in the garage area, because early on there ... he was rough, he was bumping people,” he said. “He’s emerged ... from where he was when he first started with us to where he is today — smooth, understanding the car, and ultimately being a winner — to me is amazing.”

Penske even compared Keselowski to a young Rick Mears, who won a record four Indy 500 races with Penske Racing.

“I think everybody would vote yes on, that (Keselowski) is a race driver,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s consistent. I think he cares about the sport, he cares about the fans, and if you asked the officials, I think they feel that he’s playing ball, too.”

As far a Keselowski’s critics who think he is too much of a dare devil, Penske does not much care what they think.

“I can’t get into what people think about him,” he said. “All I know is the people in the garage area, many people have come up to me and said ‘this guy is really doing a job for you’ and these are owners who today would love to have him drive for them.

“Those are my peers who are saying you’ve got the best in the business. That’s my report card.”

All Keselowski has to do now is bring the championship home on Sunday for his boss, who clearly likes the kid.

 

GORDON WON’T BACK DOWN

Jeff Gordon still thinks that Clint Bowyer’s actions prior to last week’s dust up at Phoenix International Raceway deserved to be dealt with he way he did — wrecking him, that is.

The incident escalated into a full scale brawl in the garage area at PIR and could continue into Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway on Sunday.

So is Gordon sorry?

Well, yes and no.

“The thing that I regret and the thing that I messed up on is that I allowed my anger and my emotions to put me in a position to make a bad choice,” he said at Homestead.

“I felt like that Clint needed to be dealt with, but that wasn’t the right way to go about it, certainly not the right time. I certainly look back on it and wish I had done things different.”

Gordon, however, noted that Bowyer had run into him earlier in the race and had done so in previous races.

“I feel like I race guys the way they race me, and nobody likes to get wrecked,” he said. “And so I think that for me there were some way that I had been taking advantage of, and so obviously enough was enough.

“I’ve been through a lot of moments throughout my career, some that I was more proud of than others. This is definitely not one of my proudest moments, but I also understand what kind of led up to it and I stand by that.”

FROM THE GRIDIRON TO THE TRACK

Brad Keselowski’s first sporting dream was to be a pro football player.

But early on his dad, Bob, sat him down and said he would be better to concentrate on racing.

“I weigh 155, 160 pounds and my Dad told me early in my career that I probably wasn’t going to be a really good football player, but when you get in a race car, you don’t have any of those disadvantages,” he said.

“I don’t have to worry about fighting a 300-pound lineman or taking a hit from a linebacker that weighs 280 and can run faster than I can. I don’t have to worry about any of that.

“When I get in that car, I’m the same size as everyone else and it comes down to what level of heart you have and what mental preparation you have to hang it all out there. And that’s part of what makes racing so special and also part of what makes it so difficult.”

VETTEL WINS POLE

Over in Austin. Tex., Sebastian Vettel claimed the pole for Sunday inaugural U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas.

Vettel, who is closing in on his third consecutive F-1 world championship, had the fastest lap of one minute, 35.877 seconds in the Red Bull Renault at the 5.513 km permanent road course.

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, Vettel’s closest rival in the championship, finished way back in ninth with a lap of 1:37.300.

Alonso is convinced he can make up the gap in Sunday’s race.

“As always, the race is tomorrow,” he said. “I still think that tomorrow we are going to reduce the gap to Sebastian, which is what counts.”

Lewis Hamilton will start on the outside pole after lapping the brand new circuit in 1:35.766 in his McLaren Mercedes.

Vettel’s teammate Mark Webber was third at 1:36.174 with a pair of Lotus drivers — Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen — fourth and fifth respectively.

Grosjean, however, was hit with a five-position penalty after the team changed the gearbox on his car.

 


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