Brad Keselowski talks as though racing continues to be business as usual.
The 28-year-old is leading the standings in NASCAR’S Chase for the Sprint Cup, and while his margin over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is a mere seven points, and perennial contender Denny Hamlin is only 20 points behind, Keselowski quickly dismisses talk that being chased in the chase means pressure.
“I know in my shoes, I feel good about our situation,” Keselowski said. “I love the way we performed over the last few weekends, really over the Chase. You want to win every race and obviously that hasn’t happened, but that’s not realistic either. But we’ve been fortunate to win two races and be in contention for others. Even when we don’t win, we seem to be able to find a way to not have a disaster out of it.”
That might be harder to do at Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson is on the pole, Hamlin is starting fifth and the two have combined to win 10 times. Keselowski, meantime, has never finished better than ninth and will roll off 32nd, back where on-track mayhem can ruin a driver’s day quickly.
Johnson and Hamlin, though, have both started back in the field here and rallied for good finishes. Johnson started 22nd here in the spring, and rallied to contend for the victory before fading to 12th.
This time around he’d love to see Keselowski struggle early because the leader typically reaches the tail-end of the field and starts lapping cars before 20 laps have been run. That makes it critical for a contender starting near the back to drive his way out of that situation as quickly as possible.
“You have got to go,” Johnson said. “Everybody around you has that same mentality too, so it can be pretty cut throat back there. The priority is to get going. You have got to get up into the 20’s and get a buffer of cars between you and the leader so that things can kind of spread out and get into a rhythm.”
Hamlin started 19th here in March 2010 and rallied for his second of three straight victories.
“Ultimately, at the start of races, when you start getting into each other, things happen a little bit worse back there because of the chain reaction,” Hamlin said. “Usually if you have a good car, and you don’t get in trouble, it takes your second or third run, you’ll find yourself in the top five.”
Even if Keselowski rallies to get into contention on NASCAR’s oldest, trickiest oval, Hamlin figures the air of calm about the season’s final three races will be harder to maintain the longer it lasts.
“You can put that iron-clad armor around you, and think that it’s not going to affect you, but it will eventually,” Hamlin said. “It doesn’t matter whether you are going from the divisional game to the championship series, it just continues to build and get harder to block out everything that you hear.
“You are thinking about all of your dreams coming true in just a matter of weeks. That definitely will affect you. It’s just how you let it affect you, whether it be a positive or negative,” he said.
Hamlin finished third in the chase in 2006 and was second two years ago. He and Keselowski share the series lead with five victories and Hamlin thinks No. 6 would put him right in the thick of contention.
“I mean, if we win, then it is going to be huge momentum,” he said. “It’s going to give us obviously a large substantial chunk of the points that we are down we’ll get back. If for some reason, we can lead the most laps and win the race, that’s half of our deficit that we’ve got that we can knock out in one week.
“This place will build momentum, or it will take. You just hope you are on the first side of that.”
Because of his history of closing the deal in close championship races, Johnson would seem to be the favorite at this point. He won an unprecedented five championships in a row before relinquishing the title to Tony Stewart last season, and is hoping he can leave Sunday night as the points leader again.
“When it gets playoff time, things happen,” he said after winning the pole Friday night. “I don’t want to put my guard down. Certainly, very happy about today’s performance and where we have ended up and we are ahead of our competitors, but it is playoff time, and everybody brings their best stuff.”