CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Brad Keselowski recognizes how fortunate he is to be racing at NASCAR's top level, and uses the kind of joke a guy would tell his buddy over a beer as a metaphor for the situation he finds himself in.
In Keselowski's version of the joke, an unemployed man prays every night to win the lottery as a means to end his struggles. As times goes on with no response, he angrily demands an answer only for God to tell him "Try buying a ticket!"
"I'm a lottery winner, this I know," explains Keselowski, "but I've bought a ton of tickets."
And that's how Keselowski has kept his cool so far in this heavyweight title fight with five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
The 28-year-old has yet to flinch in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, which is down to the final two races and realistically only two drivers. Keselowski opened the Chase with a win at Chicago, surrendered it to Johnson the next week at New Hampshire, grabbed it back the next week at Dover and held it three more weeks through Kansas.
Then Johnson snatched it back with a win at Martinsville to take a two-point lead in the standings, and widened the margin to seven points with a second consecutive victory last weekend at Texas. But Keselowski went down swinging — he was the leader on three restarts in the final 19 laps, only coming up short on the hold-your-breath, door-banging final dash to the finish with Johnson.
But Keselowski's back is against the wall now headed into Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway, where Johnson is a four-time winner and has a 5.3 average finish.
Johnson won the Chase race at Phoenix in his 2007 championship season to shake Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon loose in the title race. Johnson won there again in 2008 and 2009 to turn the season finales into mere formalities, and he finished third in 2010 to climb off the ropes and rally the next week to stop Denny Hamlin from snapping his streak of five consecutive championships.
It's not Keselowski's best track, but he doesn't have much history at Phoenix.
Keselowski is in just his third Sprint Cup season with Penske Racing, and Sunday will be his seventh career start at Phoenix. So, sure, his numbers aren't pretty with only one career top-five finish — but it was this year, when he finished fifth.
And he's adamant he's not overthinking this, and he won't fall victim to the nerves or stress or pressure that seemed to rattle Hamlin down the stretch in 2010 or Carl Edwards on the final weekend of last year's battle with Tony Stewart.
Keselowski said this week he's had enough highs and lows in life to be able to keep this ride in perspective, and racing for a championship can never compare to the pressure he felt watching his family shut down its decades-old race team two races into the 2006 season.
His family had backed him for the 2005 Truck Series season, but pulled the plug after two races in 2006.
"Being a part of my family's business and watching it fail is as low as it gets," he said. "Watching them have to sell all their assets and not even be able to get to the racetrack, that is as low as it gets right there. To think that I was a part of my family going bankrupt to try to pursue your own dream is a moment where you feel so selfish and incredibly low as a human being that you don't even know how you're ever going to recover from that."
He benefited from a break here and there along the way, picking up four more Truck Series starts that season and seven Nationwide starts.
Keselowski got three Truck Series starts in 2007 — one of them came at the recommendation of veterans as a last-minute replacement for suspended Ted Musgrave — and was in a crummy Nationwide deal when Dale Earnhardt Jr. grabbed him from obscurity 20 races into the season for the JR Motorsports ride that finally put Keselowski on the path to where he is today.
He said he looks at Joey Logano, who was in the Cup Series at 18, and Ryan Blaney, the 18-year-old who in September became the youngest winner in Truck Series history, and wonders what he could have accomplished if he had received the same breaks they had at such an early age.
"I think about them and they're almost as good as I am if not better right now," Keselowski said. "I think, 'I wish I had those opportunities when I was their age.' And then I stop and go, 'Hell no' because all the failures that I had from age 16-to-24 shaped who I am and have prepared me for this moment right here.
"The good Lord willing that we get through Phoenix and we're in position to win the championship, I am going to show up at that racetrack mentally prepared because I've been through moments that were far more stressful than that and far more challenging for me personally. It's because of those moments that I'm prepared for these opportunities. There's a bunch of them that they just add up to where they're both funny and sad. They're part of who I am and part of what has made me appreciate what I have."