MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Brad Keselowski talks as though racing is simply business as usual.
The 28-year-old leads NASCAR’S Chase for the Sprint Cup. While his margin on five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is just seven points and perennial contender Denny Hamlin is only 20 points back, Keselowski dismisses talk that being chased means pressure.
“I feel good about our situation,” he 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 Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson is on the pole, Hamlin will start fifth and the two have combined to win 10 times. Keselowski has never finished better than ninth; he’ll roll off 32nd, back where mayhem can ruin a driver’s day quickly.
Johnson and Hamlin have started back in the field and rallied to good finishes. Johnson started 22nd here in the spring and contended 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 completed. That makes it critical for a contender starting near the back to drive his way out of trouble quickly.
“You have got to go,” Johnson said. “Everybody around you has that same mentality, too, so it can be pretty cut- throat back there.”
Even if Keselowski rallies into contention, Hamlin figures the air of calm surrounding 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.”
Hamlin finished third in the Chase in 2006 and was second in 2010. He and Keselowski share the series lead with five victories, and Hamlin thinks No. 6 would put him right in the thick of things.
“If we win, then it is going to be huge momentum,” he said. “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 it. You just hope you are on the first side of that.”
Thanks to his history of closing the deal, Johnson would seem to be the favorite.
“When it gets playoff time, things happen,” he said. “I don’t want to put my guard down.”