AVONDALE, Ariz. — Is there a game plan for defeating Jimmie Johnson in a head-to-head battle for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title?
Brad Keselowski seems to think so. And he should know, having outlasted Johnson for the title in last year’s Chase.
Forget race day. The way Keselowski sees it, the time to start putting pressure on Johnson is the moment the cars hit the track for their first practice session, typically on Friday before a Sunday race.
That’s what Keselowski said he did last year at Phoenix International Raceway, site of Sunday’s AdvoCare 500, the next-to-last race in the Chase.
“There were some practice sessions where I got by him and ran him really hard and had a lot of fun with it,” Keselowski said Thursday night at the Penske Racing Museum in Scottsdale after the induction of his 2012 championship car. “And in the race, he drove the car too hard until it blew out a tire.
“You can look at it and say, ‘Oh, it was a tire failure,’ or whatever, but those in the garage who know how the tires work know that it was reaching too hard and a failure that was caused from that. I feel quite confident in that.”
Johnson’s tire problem at Phoenix turned the Chase race upside-down. The five-time champion had entered the race with a seven-point lead over Keselowski, the same margin he holds over Kenseth with two races left this year.
Keselowski’s advice to Kenseth? Race Johnson as hard as you can.
“For them (Johnson’s No. 48 team), I wouldn’t want to have to race somebody that’s going to race me hard, because that’s not their wheelhouse,” Keselowski said. “I think that was one of our strengths last year. If I was going to give Matt a piece of advice, I’d say ‘Use the (crap) out of him.’
“Run him hard, because that’s his weakness.”
Before opening NASCAR Sprint Cup practice at PIR on Friday, Johnson took issues with Keselowski’s comments.
“I guess we need to ask Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards — Who else have I raced for a championship — how we race,” Johnson said. “We race hard. That’s not a weakness of ours, by any stretch.”
Johnson, however, did acknowledge that he learned something from last year’s Phoenix race.
“Last year here, they (Keselowski) were better than us, for sure,” Johnson said. “We worked real hard to play catch-up through the course of the weekend. Sure, we had a tire failure, and yes, we overworked the tire. We created an issue for ourselves. We were lacking some speed.
“The No. 2 had us covered the entire time here, and that particular run where the tire blew, I look back on it and think, ‘Man, if I would have preserved my tire a little bit more and didn’t overwork my equipment and didn’t speed up that tire blowing and create that issue, we would go to Homestead with a much smaller deficit and have a much better chance of racing (for the championship).
“So that’s the lesson I take from last year’s race here.”