Keselowski and Johnson again find themselves at a difference of opinionBy Kelly Crandall
To refresh, it’s been Keselowski who stated that he couldn’t keep up with Johnson at tracks like Indianapolis and Michigan. Claiming that the Hendrick teams were working outside the grey area of the NASCAR rulebook, working on the rear ends of their cars. Then he went a step further and said that his Penske team doesn’t play by those rules and wants to stay away from areas like those.
At the time NASCAR and Johnson repeatedly stated that what was taking place was legal. There was nothing on, in or a part of the car that wouldn’t pass technical inspection. Yet, NASCAR still sent out a technical bulletin before the Chase started just to have all teams again familiarize themselves with the rules and the limits of the rear ends.
No big deal for Johnson and company as they went out and won the pole for Sunday’s race then led on four different occasion for 172 of the race’s 267 laps. He was easily throwing down the gauntlet for the rest of the Chase contenders as the man to beat. Looking for his fourth win of the season and first to start his quest for a sixth championship.
Until Keselowski again had something to say about it. While he was able to challenge Johnson during portions of the race leading his share of laps – he also led four times for 72 laps – he found himself second when the final round of pit stops began. Johnson pitted and came back on track, looking to cycle back to the lead. But when Keselowski pitted and then came back on track he ended up in front of Johnson.
Keselowski had blended back on the track in turn two as Johnson roared around and tried to go past. He did but only briefly as Keselowski carried his head of steam into turns three and four to take the position. After pit stops cycled through Keselowski, not Johnson, was in the lead and driving away with 25 laps to go.
“He did cut up early. It did impede my progress, I had to check up and wasn’t sure where things were going,” said Johnson after finishing second. “But it didn’t affect the outcome I don’t believe. The way he made quick work in traffic and stretched it out on me, I’m not sure I would have held him off. At the time it messed me up, but I don’t think it played an outcome in the race.”
Keselowski won the race by over three seconds. Johnson was clearly unhappy at the time, saying on the radio that Keselowski hadn’t come back up on track in the right spot. Crew chief Chad Knaus even left the pit box to plead his case to the nearest official. NASCAR did review the tape and said Keselowski didn’t do anything wrong.
“Just really proud of the team on all fronts,” said Johnson of the day. He now sits second in points, three behind Keselowski heading into New Hampshire.
“Overcame some adversity through our practice sessions, sat on pole, led a lot of laps today, fell some on pit road, race strategy, you name it, we had a very, very solid day. Of course we would have loved to have won the race, but we’ll take second and go on. This is a fantastic way to start the Chase.”
With his fourth win of the season and first in the Chase, Keselowski now sits in the point lead for the first time in his career. This is just his second appearance in the Chase. He too, said he did no wrong on Sunday, because there is no written rule about coming back on track from pit road.
“There is no enforced line like you see in other sports and that’s not a bad thing,” said Keselowski on the incident. “That’s just one more thing to monitor during the race. I don’t want to say a gentlemen’s agreement, it’s a policy down the backstretch, off turn two I think it said specifically in the driver’s meeting, and I feel like that’s what we did.
“You can make rules that count that down to the inches and just make it a pain in the ass for everybody that participates in the sport, or you can just have a rule like we do, and I felt like I was inside those guidelines. I think NASCAR agreed as well, based on their no call.”
Beating Johnson in the process was a bonus for Keselowki. Comparing the first race of the 10 week Chase to a heavyweight fight, one that he came out on top. But he knows there’s a long way to go and that Johnson won’t go down so easily the rest of the way. Both drivers, he believes, know how good the other one is.
But when it came down to it on Sunday, Keselowski was faster when it mattered most. Just don’t ask him if it was another mind game he’s trying to play with Johnson and the 48 team. He’s not saying but did say that seeing Johnson win all the time does start to take it’s toll on others.
“It’s not for me to speak about a mental edge,” believes Keselowski. “That’s for you guys to speculate. If you want to ask him [Johnson] about that, that’s fine but it’s not for me to speculate. But when you’re winning races and running up front like we did today, it means a lot to everybody. It means a lot for your own team, and it means a lot to others sometimes.
“I know that watching the 48 win quite often, that does have an effect over time, a psychological advantage. But it’s not for me to speak.”
As for Johnson, it’s just one week in a long Chase. Anyone can go on a roll and it’s going to take some time before the Chase field starts to really take shape. But if the summer months were any indication, Keselowski and Johnson could be racing and talking about each other a lot more over the coming weeks.
“I think you can see some trends from the big tracks and form opinions there,” Johnson said. “But this track versus Charlotte versus Texas, they’re all so different. Sure, you can maybe pick a favorite, but to really know is tough. And then it’s a long time between now and Homestead, so things can change before we get there, too.
“But big track wise, you can group that into it, but next week is short track racing, and we’ll see what happens on a short track. Then you’ve got Dover and Martinsville, which really shakes things up.”