Brad Keselowski isn’t rolling over for Jimmie Johnson, not with two races to go in their championship battle and not at Phoenix International Raceway.
Keselowski outqualified Johnson by 10 positions Friday at one of the five-time NASCAR champion’s best race tracks.
It was an unusual twist for the top two contenders, as Johnson is typically the better qualifier and Keselowski has struggled in that area through the first eight races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
And there should be no question which driver would be in control at Phoenix, where Johnson is a four-time winner and has a 5.3 average finish and Keselowski has only one career top-five.
But when the qualifying session was over, Keselowski had locked down the 14th starting spot for Sunday’s race, while Johnson was in 24th. It’s the lowest qualifying position for Johnson in a Chase race since the 2010 opener at New Hampshire, and his worst this season since the August Bristol race.
“Wasn’t so good, but we’ve been fighting a little bit in qualifying trim,” Johnson said. “But, we’ve got a great baseline race setup to go off.”
Johnson struggled with the sun glare in the first turn.
“The glare was pretty bad getting into the turn, then getting the power down was tough for me up off of two,” he said. “Three and four were pretty good, I felt like on both of my laps, but I struggled oddly enough down there this time.”
Johnson moved into the points lead with his win at Martinsville two weeks ago, and widened the margin to seven points with a second-straight victory last week at Texas.
But Keselowski is eager to reclaim the top spot he held down for five weeks of the Chase, and knows how to get it back.
“I’m running to win, whatever that means,” he said. “Win the race and things become a lot easier. You don’t have to worry about those things.”