It would appear that all the folks clamoring for NASCAR elimination-style playoffs — where drivers were bounced each week until only two battle for the title at Homestead — are wasting their time. For the second straight year, the current points system has managed a mano-a-mano finish just fine on its own, thank you very much.
Last year’s title tussle — with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards finishing deadlocked and Stewart taking the crown on race wins — sure looked like a once-in-a-generation event. But now Jimmie Johnson leads Brad Keselowki by a mere seven points heading into Sunday’s penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway. With third-place Clint Bowyer 36 points behind — nearly a whole race in NASCAR’s current points system — Keselowski and Johnson are match-racing the final two weeks.
And with Johnson winning the last two races at Martinsville and Texas to wrest the lead away from Keselowski, the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge driver knows that mere consistency the last two weeks won’t be enough.
“We’ll probably need to win one of the next two races. I feel like Phoenix is a whole different animal. I know you want to bring the stats up where he’s so dominant,” Keselowski said of Johnson, whose Phoenix resume includes a gaudy four wins, 12 top-fives and 15 top-10s in 18 starts. “But they repaved last year, so it’s not the same track. So I don’t feel like a notebook there is that significant. Other than the past two races there where we’ve been just as good in both races, I felt like we may have been a little better in the fall than he was, and he was probably a little better in the spring. Looking at it that way, I’d say it’s probably a head’s up match going into Phoenix and probably the same going into Homestead. We just need to win the head’s up matches.”
Last Sunday Johnson passed Keselowski on the final, green-white-checker restart to take the win at Texas. Johnson had many close calls in winning his five straight titles from 2006-2010 — the last won by overcoming a 33-point Denny Hamlin lead in the final two races. Still, Johnson is talking like this will be his toughest path to the title.
“The gloves are off and it’s bare-knuckle fighting,” Johnson said of the last two races.
The tale of the tape for this title tilt is evenly matched, with both drivers visiting Victory Lane five times this season. Keselowki, who has never been on this stage before, was asked if a seven-point deficit would seem a little smaller were he facing anyone else.
“I mean, it’s not a little and it’s not a lot, it’s something,” Keselowski responded. “There’s no doubt about that. But with two races left and the ability to win on the last two races and that being enough to overcome that deficit, to me it is what it is, and we feel like we can fight around it.”
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