AVONDALE, Ariz. — Jimmie Johnson has Brad Keselowski right where he wants him.
OK, that’s facetious. Johnson’s hopes for a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship took a major hit in Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. On Lap 234, heat from the brakes of the No. 48 Chevrolet melted the bead on Johnson’s right front tire, the bead being the edge of the tire that sits on the wheel.
Johnson’s tire popped, sending the No. 48 hard into the outside wall. Johnson took the car to the garage and lost 38 laps while his crewmen did their best to repair the car. With a 32nd-place finish, Johnson dropped 20 points behind Keselowski in the Chase standings.
All Keselowski has to do next Sunday at Homestead is finish 15th to lock up his first championship — 16th if he leads a lap and 17th if he leads the most laps.
Nevertheless, there’s some underlying truth to the wisecrack at the top of this column. If there’s a hallmark trait that has typified the No. 48 team in its five championship seasons, that trait is resilience. Time after time, Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the team have rebounded from adversity and ill fortune.
Remember 2006, Johnson’s first title season? It started with a 39th-place finish in the first Chase race, at New Hampshire. As recently as Oct. 21, at Kansas, Johnson finished ninth in a wrecked car to keep his 2012 championship hopes alive.
Johnson has nothing to lose at Homestead. He can go all-out for the victory with a singleness of purpose unclouded by the pressure of defending a lead.
Keselowski’s task is much more complicated. He needs to strike a balance between conservatism (avoiding unnecessary risks) and consistency (continuing to do what has earned him the Chase lead in the first place).
Add to that equation the additional stress of trying to secure a first Cup championship for team owner Roger Penske, a goal that’s vitally important to Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe.
Make no mistake. Keselowski is the odds-on favorite to win the championship, but it’s also safe to say that Sunday’s race at Homestead will present the most formidable challenge of the season for the No. 2 Dodge team.
With the championship within reach, can they close the deal?
Even if Keselowski wins the title, the Ford EcoBoost 400 will be the longest 400 miles of his life.