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I thought we had a barn burner during the 2011 Chase for the Championship where Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards were tied at season’s end with the same amount of points, but Stewart winning the tie-breaker due to total wins.

I didn’t think we’d ever see anything that close again, but here we are a year later and five-time Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson holds a slight 7-point edge over the unflappable young Brad Keselowski.

I gained a ton of respect towards Keselowski over the weekend at Texas, even though he lost ground by 5 points to Johnson despite finishing second to him in the race. My fascination with him actually began last Friday when Johnson sat on the pole. Starting up front doesn’t mean a driver is going to win a race, but at this juncture of the season, it could have toyed with Keselowski’s mind a little bit and taken him off his game.

When Saturday came around for the final practice sessions, Keselowski was not only fastest in single lap and 10-consecutive lap speeds in the first session, he was also fastest in the final session. It was in that moment that I started to figure that Keselowski isn’t going anywhere and if there were mind games to be played, it was Brad who was getting under Johnson’s skin.

There is way more pressure on JJ to win than Keselowski. No one expects Brad to win, but it is expected of Johnson. As Jimmie has shown throughout his career, he doesn’t get rattled too easily. But knowing that he would have to beat Keselowski on Sunday when the No. 2 car was fastest in both sessions had to be running through his mind in a negative way.

Johnson responded on race day with the win, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying by Keselowski. Between gambling on a late two-tire pit stop to gain track position and bumping and banging at 180 mph with Johnson – who had fresher tires, I came away thinking that Keselowski is now one of my favorite drivers ever.

Here’s a guy who averaged a 25th finish position at Texas over his first eight starts, and manned up when it counted most with a runner-up. Love that!

I think it’s the loner aspect of Keselowski that makes him so endearing. It’s him against the world. He’s the only competitive driver among the two Dodges in the series. He had to endure scrutiny from the likes of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin in his first two years when they called him Brad Krash-a-lot-ski, but mostly it was because he never backed down to anyone. He doesn’t let the other drivers bully him.

Now here he is, going toe-to-toe against one of the all-time greats in NASCAR, with two races to go. It’s like the big underdogs in the Super Bowl where the Patriots can’t be beat by the Giants, or how the Patriots had no shot against the Rams. I’m not saying Keselowski will win, but there are other little mind games that go on in the heads of Champions that allow for them to not be at their best when it counts sometimes where a David can beat Goliath.

The LVH Super Book adjusted odds have Johnson as a -275 favorite with Keselowski at +225 heading into Phoenix this week.

Johnson is a four-time winner at Phoenix while Keselowski had a career best of fifth in the spring. Both drivers should be on their game for this one, but when trying to find someone else, it’s best to look at what happened on the different, but similar flat tracks of Richmond and New Hampshire. The only driver to finish in the top-5 at each of those tracks in September was Jeff Gordon.

Denny Hamlin won at new Hampshire and also won the spring Phoenix race making him a driver to possibly key on. Clint Bowyer has also been very good on these type of tracks over his career.

Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Contact Micah at [email protected].

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