AVONDALE, Ariz. — Brad Keselowski rolled into Phoenix International Raceway a year ago locked into a tight championship battle with Jimmie Johnson, and left the track poised to claim his first Sprint Cup title.
Back at the track where his fortunes turned, Keselowski is a mere spectator to this year’s title fight.
‘‘I’m relaxed, but not in a good way,’’ he said. ‘‘I’d much rather be fighting for a championship, everyone can agree with that.’’
Instead, it’s Johnson, again, in the mix.
The five-time champion leads Matt Kenseth by 7 points — the same margin Johnson held over Keselowski at this stage last season — heading into the Sunday’s penultimate race, Advocare 500, at Phoenix. Barring some sort of collapse by both drivers, it will be either Johnson or Kenseth who claims the Sprint Cup trophy following next week’s finale at Homestead.
And with that, Keselowski’s reign will come to an official end.
Some will say he went out with a whimper. In failing to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Keselowski wasn’t eligible to defend his title. But he’s proud he defeated five-time champion Johnson a year ago — a feat only he and Tony Stewart have accomplished since 2006.
‘‘To me, knowing the playing field and how it all works, it’s something I take a lot more pride in than if I didn’t understand the playing field,’’ Keselowski said. ‘‘Obviously, that team is immune to the cycles that everyone else is, and to beat them is a very large accomplishment in this sport. Whether that was Tony the year before me, and then myself, they are just a great team and it takes a clutch effort to beat them. I’m proud of the fact we were able to deliver last year.’’
Keselowski got some assistance in winning his title from Johnson’s misfortunes. At Phoenix, Johnson blew a tire and finished 32d. Keselowski finished sixth and had a comfortable 20-point lead going into the finale, where Johnson had a mechanical failure.
Keselowski took some credit for Johnson’s issues, claiming he toyed with Johnson during practice at Phoenix — a notion Johnson dismissed Friday, ‘‘I don’t even remember that. What did he do?’’
But Keselowski’s idea of toying with Johnson was never letting up, and running him hard every session. He doesn’t believe combating that type of attack is Johnson’s strength, and Kenseth would be wise to take that approach the next two weeks.
‘‘For [Johnson], I wouldn’t want to have to race somebody that is going to race me hard because that is not their wheelhouse. That was one of our strengths last year,’’ Keselowski said. ‘‘If I was going to give Matt a piece of advice, I’d say run the hell out of him every time you can. Run [Johnson] hard because that’s his weakness.’’
Keselowski believes it contributed to Johnson’s tire problem at Phoenix that ultimately gave him the points lead.
‘‘He drove the car too hard until it blew out a tire,’’ Keselowski said. ‘‘You could look at it and say that was a tire failure or whatever. Those in the garage, who know how the cars work, know it was reaching too hard and the failure that was caused from that. That’s that group’s weakness.’’
That’s not how Johnson recalled it when asked about Keselowski’s version of events Friday.
He said to go ask Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, and Carl Edwards — the drivers Johnson has beaten for titles — how hard he races before conceding that Keselowski was simply better than he was at Phoenix last year.
‘‘We race hard. That’s not a weakness of ours by any stretch,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘Last year here, they were better than us, for sure. We worked real hard to play catch-up through the course of the weekend. Sure, we had a tire failure, and, yes, we overworked the tire. We created an issue ourselves.
‘‘We love to race hard. That’s what we’re here to do. I’m not the best at putting up the fastest lap, the best at qualifying, the best at topping the speed charts in practice, but look at the fastest cars on the racetrack — I’m good at racing. That’s my sweet spot.’’
What Keselowski has proven to be good at is rankling feathers, and even though he’s not in this title race, he has remained relevant in this Chase because of a large personality and a commitment to speaking his mind. So there was no chance he was going to step aside quietly, especially not after Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus last week said that Kenseth is a ‘‘more formidable’’ opponent this year than Keselowski.
Knaus made the remark following Johnson’s win at Texas, where the crew chief said Kenseth ‘‘is a little more controlled. He’s a little more mature. He’s been in the sport for a long time. I think he’s just a little more even keel, so that makes him a little more challenging to get off kilter.’’