NASCAR’s championship battle has focused itself in recent races on a straight duel between five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Roger Penske’s exciting new talent Brad Keselowski.
In the third-last race of the long 36 round season, on the high-banked Texas Motor Speedway last Sunday, Johnson and Keselowski engaged in a hard but clean fight – a first-rate contest to be sure – with Johnson scoring his second win in a row and Keselowski holding off Kyle Busch for second place. With two races to go Johnson leads Keselowski by a slender seven points.
This is an interesting battle because Johnson is such an accomplished multiple champion, exceeded statistically only by seven-time champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Johnson drives for Rick Hendrick’s powerhouse four-car Chevrolet team which is NASCAR’s most successful team of modern times with more than 200 wins and 10 championships earned over the past 16 years.
Keselowski, on the other hand, is in only his third full season in NASCAR’s first division Sprint Cup series. Keselowski is a third generation stock car racer from Michigan who won the second division Nationwide Series championship in 2010 with Penske’s team while also running the full Sprint Cup schedule for the first time. Last year Keselowski won three races and finished fifth in the championship and this year he’s been a contender all season.
Athough Penske has run a NASCAR team for the past 20 years he’s never won a first division NASCAR championship. It’s interesting that this is the last year Penske’s NASCAR team will race Dodges before switching to Fords next year. Penske’s team builds its own Dodge engines at its headquarters in North Carolina, but with Dodge’s departure from NASCAR he will become a customer next year of Ford’s NASCAR engine builder Roush Yates Engines.
In Texas last weekend Johnson was able to score maximum points for the second week in a row by taking pole position, leading the most laps and winning the race. “It was just an awesome race,” Johnson said. “The gloves are off and it’s a bare knuckle fight. I have a lot of respect for that #2 team. Those guys are doing a great job. Today our cars were pretty equal and we got a great final restart and had the speed to get by him and stay in front. Two races to go and we’ve got everything to race for.”
Keselowski started eighth but got himself in position to fight with Johnson late in the race. The pair dueled side-by-side on the race’s final two restarts with Keselowski getting the drop on Johnson the first time ‘round and Johnson doing a slightly better job for the final sprint to the chequered flag. There was some close but clean fender-banging on one of the restarts but it was nothing untoward. “We ran hard and gave it everything we had,” Keselowski said. “I know if we can run like this that we can race for the championship, and that’s what we’re doing.”
NASCAR’s two remaining races take place next weekend on the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway and the following weekend on 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson or Keselowski? I’m well aware that many of you are not NASCAR fans, but wonder nonetheless if you have any preference?