Published March 17, 2013
Despite transitioning to the all-new Gen-6 car, the early 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings bear a remarkable resemblance to those at the conclusion of 2012 when it was Jimmie Johnson chasing Brad Keselowski going into championship weekend at Homestead, Fla.
Keselowski, coming off his third place finish at Las Vegas, has finished no worse than fourth in any of his first three races in a No. 2 Penske Racing Ford.
Johnson, who won the Daytona 500, has been no worse than sixth in his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
It comes as no surprise to either as they prepare for Sunday's Food City 500, the season's first short-track race, at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"I think Brad has shown that he and that team are going to be a familiar face up there (in the standings) week in and week out and year after year," said Johnson, who holds a five-point lead heading into Sunday's race.
"We have been able to stay in and around the top spot for the 10 years, 11 years, which is staggering to me that we have had that type of staying power."
That's why it's no shock to Keselowski that Johnson is the driver he's chasing.
"You know the 48 (Johnson) is gonna be tough to beat and it's flattering to be in a league where we can compete with them week in and week out," said Keselowski, who has won two of his previous six Sprint Cup starts at Bristol and threw in a 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series victory for good measure.
"I feel like we've been tit-for-tat each of the last three weeks. We've just got to keep pushing forward. I'm not so naïve to think that we can just keep our feet still and not be caught or passed by anyone in the field."
With seven top-10 finishes (including a win in 2010) in his last eight races at Bristol, Johnson is excited about racing the high-banked short track, a prospect that wasn't so appealing in his early years as a driver. Johnson managed just two top-fives in his first 14 Cup starts at Bristol.
"It's nice to walk through the tunnel and emerge inside the race track with a smile on my face," Johnson said. "For years, I would walk in here with a frown. Although I love the race track, I just wouldn't run very good."