by Ryan Isley
Yogi Berra once famously said “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” Jimmie Johnson is hoping the same thing holds true for NASCAR, as he took the chance on Thursday to play mind games with Brad Keselowski.
Johnson trails Keselowski by 20 points for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship heading into the season finale this weekend at Homestead-Miami Raceway, but he knows that this championship is far from over. And Johnson let Keselowski know that as well when the two met with the media on Thursday in a press conference that was aired live on Speed Channel and NASCAR.com.
The initial shot across the table came in the first answer Johnson gave when he was asked if he could still come back and win the championship this season. Johnson took that time to remind people of another championship that didn’t finish as expected this season.
“We look at the IndyCar championship and how it unfolded at Fontana,” Johnson said. “It seemed like it was a lay-up race and things can happen. This is racing.”
Of course what Johnson was referring to was Ryan Hunter-Reay winning the 2012 IndyCar championship despite trailing Will Power by 17 points heading into the season finale. Power wrecked and finished 24th while Hunter-Reay finished fourth and walked away with a three-point championship victory. It was the third straight season in which Power had a lead with one race to go and failed to convert it into a championship.
Oh yeah – the owner of that Will Power car? Roger Penske. The same Roger Penske who owns Keslelowski’s No.2 Miller Lite Dodge in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Shots fired. But they didn’t stop there.
“Brad if you would like me to call you later and remind you of other examples I certainly can of guys who didn’t pull off the season finale as they would hope,” Johnson told Keselowski, just further trying to get into the points leader’s head.
Johnson continued through most of the press conference with a stoic outward appearance but his words said more than his demeanor. Knowing that he has no chance at the title if Keselowski finishes 15th or better on Sunday, Johnson took the opportunity to remind his opponent that it wasn’t a given he would accomplish that feat.
“I think that to think that a top-15 finish is a lay-up is tough,” Johnson said. “The weight of this race – I don’t care who you are – it will show up at some point in time and thoughts will run through your head and will all that being said, a 15th-place finish isn’t a lay-up for these guys.”
And Johnson would know. He does after all have five NASCAR Sprint Cup championships under his belt. He didn’t let the day finish without mentioning that fact, either.
“One thing I have learned is regardless of how experienced anyone is in this championship battle, at some point the magnitude of it hits you,” Johnson said. “He may be very comfortable and calm now it may not happen until he is in the car but at some point that magnitude hits and I have lived through it five times.”
Just in case Keselowski wasn’t sure what was in store for him over the next few days as he tries to close in on the championship, Johnson was there to let him know.
Johnson has been the points leader heading to Homestead four times in his career and has won all four championships. He has also come from behind to win one, as he chased down Matt Kenseth in 2010 after Kenseth took the advantage into the final race.
“I have been the guy leading the points and people are so curious to know all of these what ifs. What if it happens,” Johnson said. “And you are forced to answer questions you are not used to answering so you don’t want to answer. It builds through the course of the week.
“It hits everybody differently. There’s no guarantees how it will hit him,” Johnson said. “I know from my experience that there have been those moments. Fortunately I have responded well to them. We will see how the weekend goes.”
We certainly will see how this weekend goes. Will Keselowski hold off the emotions and Johnson to win his first Sprint Cup championship? Or will Johnson use the mental edge he tried to create Thursday and win his sixth championship in seven seasons?
As Yogi would also say – “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” In fact, it may have just begun.
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