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Brad vs Jimmie, Round 9, but Kyle Busch may crash their party

Brad vs Jimmie, Round 9, but Kyle Busch may crash their party

Ground Control to Major Tom: Kyle Busch suited for action (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   Crash City?
   Well, this track's new asphalt looks pretty darned slippery.
   The man who comes out of Sunday's Phoenix 500 with the NASCAR tour points lead, either Jimmie Johnson or Brad Keselowski, is almost certain to go on to win this season's Sprint Cup championship.
   And after more than a dozen drivers crashed here Friday in practice, that championship pressure appeared clear. Denny Hamlin said the track-and-tire combination made things "treacherous."
   Johnson comes here with a slim seven point lead over Keselowski, and Johnson has won the last two races, at Texas and Martinsville.
   And Johnson Friday looked to be playing it cautiously. He was slow in practice, which gave him a poor draw for qualifying, and he qualified poorly, 24th.
    Keselowski on the other hand appears boldly confident here, after refusing to buckle in Johnson's charge. And Keselowski will start 14th.
    "There is no resemblance between the Brad-then and the Brad-now," Hamlin said, referring to Keselowski's growing maturity.
   Kyle Busch won the pole last night for the 500, and he could easily win, because this is a very good track for him. But it would be a rarity for a non-chaser like Busch to win a playoff race.
   Busch, who has had something of a lackluster -- relatively -- season, has been plagued with more than usual mechanical issues this season, blown engines, and bad luck.
    However Busch could easily have won Texas. And his car appeared much more stable and secure here Friday than most of his rivals'.
   Toyota swept 1-2-3 in qualifying, but just how to analyze qualifying, in light of the slick track and hard tire, and Sunday's expected cooler weather?
   "The track started out today very, very slick, but as the day went on it got better," Martin Truex Jr. said after his second-fastest qualifying lap.
    Still, this event, particularly for title contenders over the years, even before the chase, has been difficult, a title graveyard for many.

 Smile and the world smiles with you: Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Keselowski, the upstart, has been hanging tough with veteran Johnson throughout the playoffs. And then last Sunday night their title duel got down to what Johnson described as "bare knuckles racing.'   
    Here Johnson was quick to praise his rival for keeping a cool head, even when driving so hard. "He is the only driver that came to victory lane to shake my hand after the race in Texas, and I just thought that took a lot of class," Johnson said.
    "It's tough in this moment -- we're both racing and trying to achieve our dreams of being a champion... and for him to put a smile on his face and come to victory lane to shake my hand I thought was a big move on his behalf."
   Especially just moments after Keselowski took Johnson "well past Elvis" in the first turn in their battle for the win.
   Johnson, with five championships and an edge toward a sixth, is setting new goals for himself:
    "I want to be considered the best driver to ever sit in a stock car.  The undisputed way to pull that off is to win eight championships. 
    "I put that mark way, way out there in front of me. It's a lofty goal.  I've accomplished every goal I've set in front of myself. And I'm going to put one way out there and hope I get there. 
     "If I don't, I know I've tried and given 100 percent. We'll see if I get to it."   


  Brad Keselowski's crew chief on the move (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     There are those who  say they're tired of Johnson ripping off championship after championship.
    "I've worked my entire life to get to this point in my career," Johnson says. "I wasn't around to see the Richard Petty era, but I know -- or I can only assume -- a lot of people were tired of seeing the King win.  I know a lot of people were tired of seeing Dale Earnhardt win. 
    "I lived it firsthand in watching Jeff Gordon go through that very same thing after his fourth championship. 
     "It's not that I'm in this unique situation.
      "I'm not doing anything different than Gordon, Petty, Earnhardt.  In fact I'm awfully damn proud to be in that lump of guys that had to go from cheers to boos... and when they get back to cheering you again is when you stop winning.  I don't want those cheers; I'll keep the boos."

    This race is shaping up as something of a wild card in the title chase.
    And Johnson suddenly seems on the defensive.
     "We've won some races here, and been able to run in the top-five -- which is very important, to carry a lead into a comfortable Homestead," Johnson insists. 
    "I've been on the ropes here racing Denny, and things worked out from a fuel mileage standpoint that closed the gap (2010), and went to Homestead and had to race for it. 
    "I've been here before with Gordon dueling it out. We won, and he might have been second or third in the race... and that is the year that reminds me the most of what I'm dealing with right now. 
    "I expect for Brad to be strong here. He and I raced real hard for third or fourth in the closing laps of the spring race.  I would assume we would be right there running nose to tail once again when the checkered flag falls on Sunday."


  Kyle Busch (R) and brother Kurt (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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