Down to two: How Johnson and Keselowski got here

Top remaining Chase contenders tell what led to their respective journeys

Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012

For the second consecutive season, only two drivers enter the Sprint Cup Series finale with a chance to win the season championship.

This year features a mix of old and new.

Jimmie Johnson, who won five consecutive titles between 2006 and 2010, is seeking championship No. 6.

Brad Keselowski is looking for his first championship in just his fourth full-time season in the series.

The Observer asked the contenders to explain what got them to where they are now – with a chance to win NASCAR’s biggest prize in Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Read their journeys here, as told to the Observer.

Jimmie Johnson

It really goes back to the offseason. There were things that bothered me about how I responded to the pressure and circumstances of last year’s Chase.

We didn’t have the cars we wanted, and that certainly instigated that, but I just didn’t like where my head was.

(Crew chief) Chad (Knaus) and I worked hard on our dynamic, venting during the offseason and working through our frustrations. Communicating them was very helpful.

It’s like a second marriage at times. Everybody can relate to the fact that if you can get something off your chest, you feel better and you move on and are stronger and better.

I certainly feel like I’ve made some great changes to myself. We worked hard on our race cars, of course, and we opened up the season with a very competitive car and we were able to maintain or keep advancing through the year.

But I also made changes on how to balance my job and family life.

We’ve had some great race cars. We’ve won a bunch of races and led a lot of laps – that’s good medicine for anybody. From an engineering standpoint we’ve been “on” all year.

The No. 5 team at the start of the year helped a lot with our speed. Later in the year, the No. 88 helped a lot, and we’ve pulled things from the No. 24.

I don’t think there was any one moment when I felt we were on our way to having another chance at a championship.

There was a span there late in the summer where I thought we were capable of winning a bunch of races. There wasn’t a single impactful event, but how we performed during that stretch said a lot about us.

We’ve had a great year, but not just that, we – the No. 48 team – has had a great existence.

I start to go down that road to reflection and I have to remind myself this is not the time to do that – that will come later. I think that’s part of maturity and growing I went through in the offseason.

I’m going to give 100 percent regardless. I don’t want to rest on what I’ve accomplished, I want to look forward.

I was so in the dark and not enjoying the success that we’ve had and not letting that help me get through the tough times. I’ve got to do more of that.

If we don’t win the championship this year, I still have so much to be proud of during the course of 2012. I’ll still find a way to have a big smile on my face.

Brad Keselowski

I didn’t enter the season with any set expectations. I really try not to do that.

My expectations are based on effort and not on results. I believe that over an extended period of time, with the proper amount of effort, you will find results. I guess you can just say it’s the law of averages.

With that in mind, I didn’t put an expectation on our results.

The start of our year was a little disappointing. We had some issues with the fuel system and it kicked us toward the back of the points (standings). I thought we were a better team than that.

That put us in a position to divide, and we didn’t. It took a lot to get past that as a team.

There was an asterisk next to our points position, at least internally, for the remainder of the summer. Everybody said, “Well, we’re in the Chase by 50 points or whatever, but we would have locked it up, if …” and things like that.

Through the middle of the season, we were missing a little speed, but we were able to offset that with incredible execution. I felt confident that when we found the speed to match the execution, we were going to be in great shape.

We found a bit of that when the Chase started. I knew when we ran as good as we did at Chicagoland that we were positioned for a title run.

The majority of the schedule after Chicagoland is on mile-and-a-half race tracks just like it, so our mentality from there was that since we were successful on that one we should be successful on all of them.

That was a pretty good position to be in.

I’m so excited about this weekend I wish we could race right now.

I didn’t want to see what happened to Jimmie last weekend (blown tire, subsequent wreck). The real success in your life is when, after competition, you are completely exhausted because you left everything out there and it was just enough to be successful.

For that to be true for the No. 2 team, it would mean having to come down here and have to win (the race). Obviously, that’s not what it requires now. So, from that standpoint, it was disappointing to see what happened to Jimmie.

I’ve been going for a championship all my life, and this one for the past nine races. Homestead pays the same amount of points as Chicagoland, and the same amount of points Martinsville did, when Jimmie won.

It’s the same – there is no reason to change our approach now.

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