Beautiful weather at Texas Motor Speedway...especially if you're Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson take their championship game into Round Eight here this weekend, and Johnson's again took a step up, by winning the pole for Sunday's Texas 500.
But Keselowski, who had to rally back last weekend at Martinsville to hang in there with Johnson in the NASCAR title chase after a poor qualifying effort, was solid Friday at Texas Motor Speedway -- yet again showing strength under pressure.
The two men have shown a very serious, studious side the past two weeks, and again Friday, with the 12-man playoff show now down to just them alone.
Johnson impressed even himself with the speed. "We definitely exceeded expectations," Johnson said.
"We won a battle today, but the larger battle is Sunday. And we hope these battles we're winning will lead to us winning the war."
Johnson, despite the unseasonably hot weather, in the high 80s, was clocked at 191.076 mph, considerably quicker than Martin Truex Jr.'s pole run here in the spring.
Soon to be Mr. Six-Time? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
However Johnson pointed to the much bigger issue this week -- the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy in New York City and New Jersey.
Johnson, who has an apartment in lower Manhattan, revealed his Chelsea place was one of those flooded in the Hurricane Sandy disaster.
So he said he was quite ready to donate to the Disaster Relief Fund. "We certainly want to join in support and help spread the word and hopefully influence others to donate.
"The building Chani and I have an apartment in has been flooded, and it's still evacuated. Nobody can go in the building.
"The bottom two floors are underground and have been flooded, and the main lobby had some major damage too.
"It's just a wild, wild deal up there. And to talk to our friends about the experiences they've had... and to know how many people in Manhattan and all the surrounding area that are dealing with all the water issues, it's a sad thing.
"Hopefully what we're doing will help influence others to donate and try to help our friends up there."
...not if Brad Keselowski has anything to say about it (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Johnson, just two points up on Keselowski, should have an edge over his title rival. But then Johnson, as a five-time champ, should have had an edge over him all season, and yet Keselowski has shown remarkable resiliency, not only bouncing back but even snookering Johnson on occasion.
In fact Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe would still have the points lead if they hadn't miscalculated gas mileage at Charlotte two weeks ago while dominating that 500. Instead of winning Keselowski finished 11th.
Keselowski pointed to Denny Hamlin's stunning fallout at Martinsville six days ago, because of minor electrical problem, while dominating, as "a wake up for all of us."
And Johnson too is cautious about calling it just a two-man race, even though Clint Bowyer does appear all but out of it, unless he can finish about 10 positions ahead of both in each of the final three events.
"I guess in some respects you can look at it as two guys and a two-guy breakaway right now, but I'm not putting too much stock in that," Johnson insists. "A mid-pack finish for me and Brad will bring everybody back into it; that's not too big of a margin in my eyes."
While Johnson naturally is one of the usual race favorites here (along with Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth), all he really has to do from here on is finish ahead of Keselowski.
And vice versa.
Whether or not the two men just chase each other here and at Phoenix and at Homestead isn't clear.
"I look over the last couple of weeks, and what our team was able to accomplish at Kansas with a damaged race car, and then what we did last week, is quite a statement -- that we're serious about this championship, and we're doing the right things to win this thing," Johnson says.
The April 500 here was rather boring, a lot of green flag racing, virtually no incidents.
Johnson says he's braced for a repeat: "I think it will be like that, to be honest with you.
"We'll be from the line to the wall all the way around the track, and we'll have options, which drivers love. It creates fewer cautions because we have an opportunity to race and move around. The flip side of that is there's a lot of green flag racing. So I'm preparing for that."
Jimmie Johnson (R) in Kurt Busch's charity mud run. Busch (C) and Patricia Driscoll, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (L) (Photo: Kurt Busch)
And to the question of whether or not stock car racers are really athletes -- Johnson did a Mud Run the other day.
"I've done some triathlons, a few 5-ks. To do a Mud Run was quite a different discipline.
"The distance was just over a mile, with 10, 12, or 15 obstacles. So in the running areas you're trying to keep a good pace going. Then you're challenged with some obstacle that would elevate your heart rate higher than you wanted it to be. And you'd get over or through or under the obstacle and take off running again, trying to catch your breath.
"It was an intense 13 minutes. I ended up second overall, which was cool.
"My throat is still kind of raspy just from breathing so hard. It was an aerobic workout, to say the least."
Chad Knaus: the wizard...and maybe a bit miffed at getting upstaged lately by rival crew chief Paul Wolfe (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)