So many things can go wrong inside and around a car that won’t prevent a driver from taking the checkered flag. But if the driver’s head starts missing gears, that’s a car that’s running for second.
Second would get Brad Keselowski the NASCAR Sprint Cup series title, to be decided Sunday at Homestead. So, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson began poking at Keselowski’s mind Thursday, and Keselowski kept showing Johnson that his mind was right.
“The weight of this race, I don’t care who you are, it’ll show up at some point in time and thoughts will run through your head,” Johnson said. “And with all that being said, a 15th-place finish is not a layup for these guys. So I have a little bit of stick in that and we’ll see how they respond.”
Keselowski responded flashing swagger and teeth, a stance that prompted one media member to ask “are you too dumb to know any better?”
Minutes after deflecting that and getting in a shot at the media’s intelligence, Keselowski brought up a scene from the documentary Senna. With a big lead late at Monaco, the late Formula One deity Ayrton Senna, whose very name might as well mean “swagger” in Brazilian Portuguese, refused to slow his breathlessly swift pace. Senna wrecked.
“And I think of that as I approach this weekend,” Keselowski said. “I’m going to go out play my game, race my way, that’s gotten us to this point. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup finale sets up as the least dramatic of the weekend’s races. Each of the two lower series, Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, have three drivers in contention. The Sprint Cup Chase is down to two.
Keselowski just needs to finish 15th. He can finish even lower if Johnson doesn’t win. No driver besides Johnson can catch Keselowski. So Keselowski’s task ranks with avoiding a late-round knockout to come home with the title.
But, unlike boxing, you don’t get a fat lead in the points being a Pernell Whitaker or Saoul Mamby behind the wheel. You’ve got to slug it out, go door handle-to-door handle (OK, they don’t have door handles anymore) with your competition — race on the edge.
A long ago winter day in Miami Beach, a pretty young master of mind manipulation acted 17 kinds of crazy at the weigh-in and threw The Big Bad Bear into bewilderment. Later that night, a battered Sonny Liston, unsure of Cassius Clay’s sanity, certain only that Clay lacked fear and could rumble, quit on his stool.
(Want to know why Ali and many boxing historians figure Ali would whip Mike Tyson? Tyson, who idolized Liston as the bad guy outsider, not only lacked Liston’s height and reach, but Ali thought him even more malleable in the head.)
Friday, at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship’s equivalent of the weigh-in, Jimmie Johnson wasted no time.
“I find another point of motivation and optimism, we look at the IndyCar championship and how it unfolded at Fontana,” Johnson said. “It seemed like a layup race and things can happen.”
At Fontana, Fort Lauderdale’s Ryan Hunter-Reay took the IndyCar title after points leader Will Power, driving for Keselowski owner Roger Penske, slapped the wall.
Johnson knows a mistake by an uptight crew chief or pit crewman can open the door to title No. 6 for him. Or if he gets Keselowski to ease off his rambunctious style and just try to stay alive in the race, anything can happen.
Homestead-Miami Speedway is the only place in South Florida where driving defensively counts as ill-advised.
“We have to approach it like any other race weekend,” truck series leader James Bucscher said. “I think if we switch to defense, you get too worried about what these other two guys are doing and you don’t focus on your team and what you need to do on the racetrack.”
Asked if he wanted to know where series title competitors Ty Dillon and Timothy Peters were during the race, Buescher started his answer with “I think that’s switching to defense for us.”
Former NASCAR ace Dale Jarrett, now an ESPN analyst, said he would rather go into the weekend knowing you needed to finish in the top five to clinch. Then, you just did what you normally do.
Johnson claimed he didn’t come into Thursday with an agenda. He also said he was at peace with his situation.
A year ago, Tony Stewart suggested he felt great, had nothing to lose, going into a finale in which he had the only shot at catching Carl Edwards.
When I suggested to Stewart that he was trying to do to Edwards what Johnson and Harvick did to Hamlin in 2010, Stewart laughed, “You guys think about stuff way too much. I just think about how to accomplish your goal.”
Oh, he accomplished his goal.
Stewart walked off with his third series title.