BUY TICKETS TODAY! CALL US AT (603) 783-4931

A Champion: You Have to be One to Beat One

Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Defending a championship is never easy, but Brad Keselowski has looked unfazed so far in 2013. Photo: Getty Images

We've only had three races in this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, however, the debate that's raging right now is which driver has been the best to start the season: Jimmie Johnson or Brad Keselowski.

Fellow GraniteStripe.com blogger Gavin Faretra and I debated his Magic Mile Power Rankings from yesterday that put Keselowski over Johnson in the rankings.  I disagreed.

Personally, I think that Johnson with his first, second and sixth-place finishes has had the car to beat over Keselowski (fourth, fourth and third).  In each of the first two races of the season, he pulled away from Keselowski on late restarts and holds a five-point advantage in the standings.  He's also led more than twice as many laps.

Regardless of your selection, the general consensus is that they're two peas in a pod or two cars under a blanket, as a NASCAR commentator might say.  (Side note: That's gotta be one, big blanket!)  Yahoo's Power Rankings also put Keselowski over Johnson, but that writer, Nick Bromberg, along with Gavin, both seem to admit that while they've taken the Penske Racing driver first, Johnson could be considered a 1A to him.

I might have them reversed with Keselowski ranked second, but I have to agree that both of their starts warrant a top spot in the rankings.  Brad clearly has a championship demeanor with which he's approached this season.  Like the five-time champion Johnson, he's shown why he deserves to wear the ring.

In each race so far, Keselowski's taken a car that hasn't looked to be among the fastest, but he worked with crew chief Paul Wolfe to improve it and got the No. 2 up front for at least some portion of the race.  Rain on Friday gave him the benefit of starting on the pole from which he led the first nine laps, but not to be discredited, he got back up front on three other occasions during the Kobalt Tools 400.

There have been opportunities each week for him to fade back into a 15th-place finish, but he found ways to avoid that mediocre conclusion.  The ability to make a good day into a great finish is what led to his 2012 Sprint Cup Championship.  It's what keeps him in front of some other strong drivers, like Greg Biffle, who has finished 17th each of the last two weeks, or Kevin Harvick, who has finished 13th and ninth.

The resolve of consistency in top-fives and top-10s worked so well for Jimmie Johnson during his run of five consecutive titles from 2006-10, and it's a strategy at which the No. 2 team bested the No. 48 en route to last year's championship.

It's clear that Jimmie has no intention of passing the torch of greatness to another driver, but it's also clear that Keselowski doesn't care whether Johnson plans to pass it or not.  He has the championship fortitude to step up and rip it away from him, and with his string of consistent finishes, it's only a matter of time before he visits victory lane to announce his plans for a title defense.

Sure, we've only had three races in 2013, but I've seen enough to know that we're looking at two heavyweights.  It takes a champion to compete with a champion, and both of these competitors qualify under that premise.  The back-and-forth between Johnson and Keselowski and the ensuing debate over the better driver is only just beginning.

If both these drivers can continue to build on their hot starts, and I certainly expect they will, it's going to be one heck of a power struggle to observe throughout the season.