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Brad Keselowski gears for tough race

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Brad Keselowski talks as though racing continues to be business as usual. The 28-year-old is leading the standings in NAS­CAR’S Chase for the Sprint Cup, and while his margin over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is 7 points, and perennial contender Denny Hamlin is only 20 points behind, Keselowski quickly dismisses talk that being chased in the Chase means pressure.

‘‘I feel good about our situation,’’ Keselowski said. ‘‘I love the way we performed the last few weekends, really over the Chase. You want to win every race, but that’s not realistic. We’ve been fortunate to win two races and be in contention in others. Even when we don’t win, we seem to be able to find a way to not have a disaster out of it.’’

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That might be harder to do Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson is on the pole, Hamlin is starting fifth, and the two have combined to win 10 times. Keselowski, meanwhile, has never finished better than ninth and will roll off 32d, back where mayhem can ruin a driver’s day quickly.

Johnson and Hamlin, though, have both started back in the field here and rallied for good finishes. Johnson started 22d in the spring, and rallied to contend for the victory before fading to 12th. This time around he’d love to see Keselowski struggle early because the leader typically reaches the tail end of the field and starts lapping cars before 20 laps have been run. That makes it critical for a contender starting near the back to drive his way out of that situation as quickly as possible.

‘‘You have got to go,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘Everybody around you has that same mentality too, so it can be pretty cut-throat back there. You have got to get up into the 20s and get a buffer of cars between you and the leader so that things can kind of spread out and get into a rhythm.’’

Hamlin started 19th here in March 2010 and rallied for his second of three straight victories. Even if Keselowski rallies to get into contention, Hamlin figures the air of calm about the season’s final three races will be harder to maintain the longer it lasts.

‘‘You can put that iron-clad armor around you, and think that it’s not going to affect you, but it will eventually,’’ Hamlin said. “You are thinking about all of your dreams coming true in just a matter of weeks. That definitely will affect you. It’s just how you let it affect you, whether it turns out to be a positive or negative.”

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