It’s funny how a few short years changes things. The phenom becomes the cagey veteran, and the hunter becomes the hunted. Welcome to 2012’s two-horse race: the veteran Jimmie Johnson, in search of his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship- and Brad Keselowski- coming on strong in pursuit of his first title at the top level. It wasn’t all that long ago that Johnsn was the kid, chasing down his boss and mentor, Jeff Gordon.
Though Keselowski gave up the points lead, it’s pretty remarkable, how he finished the race, given where he started. Starting 32nd at a short track often puts you in harm’s way, as you try to jockey your way forward amongst the heavy traffic, with cars that may be slower, and some drivers with not nearly as much to lose. Considering his predicament, the driver of the Blue Deuce is grateful to come out sixth. “This team has a tremendous amount of heart. I'm proud of them” said Keselowski. “This championship is going to come down to Homestead. You have to be in a position where you're in shot of it. We have to do what we need to do to be in contention at Homestead.”
Johnson has transitioned from that hungry young guy in 2006, to one who has fought off a variety of challengers, from a variety of angles. He’s not expecting Keselowski to go away quietly, as he sees something he has before in the contender. “I guess I see more of a familiar, never quit, fight-to-the-end attitude out of the 2 team that I've seen with some of the best in the sport, if it's Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon. Denny, when I raced him, Mark Martin, they have that tenacity to stay after it and they're doing a great job.”
Recognizing that Texas bears a similarity to Chicago, there are reasons Johnson expects Bad Brad to hang with him. Denny Hamlin’s misfortunes also serve as a cautionary tale as well. “We're ready to race under any conditions. He's a great driver. It's a great team. Next two races will tell the tale. Anything can happen. We could both wad it up next week and Clint Bowyer is your champion. You never know. You got to go race the race.”
Keselowski has confidence down the stretch. “We have Texas coming up, very similar to Chicago. I'm sure it's going to be a duel with the 48 there. We'll keep fighting the good fight.” He sounds more than ready to hunt, and get the 48 lined up in his sights. “This championship is going to come down to Homestead. You have to be in a position where you're in shot of it. We have to do what we need to do to be in contention at Homestead.”
Just two points separate the former champion from challenger. Keselowski has the confidence and the car to hunt down the points leader, but as often as not, the prey escapes the predator. Can Brad Keselowski become that famed trophy hunter? Will Jimmie Johnson go down as one of those famed 4-point bucks that somehow eludes his stalkers to survive yet one more season.
Grab a seat, pop open a cold one. The hunt is on.
Jim McCoy is a radio and television sports reporter and producer in Southern Oregon, where he makes his home with his wife and three children. Jim is also a radio play-by-play announcer for high school football, baseball and basketball. He was recently named Oregon Association of Broadcasters 2012 Sports Announcer of The Year- Non-commercial Division.
Other articles by Jim McCoy include:
Parting Gifts From Matt Kenseth
Who's Laughing At Michael Waltrip Racing Now?
NASCAR's Guilty Pleasure