- Associated Press - Friday, November 8, 2013

AVONDALE, ARIZ. (AP) - 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 admitted. “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 seven points _ the same margin Johnson held over Keselowski at this stage last season _ heading into Sunday’s penultimate race 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 did get some assistance in winning his title from Johnson’s own misfortunes.

At Phoenix, Johnson blew a tire and finished 32nd. Keselowski finished sixth and had a comfortable 20-point lead going into the finale, where Johnson had a mechanical failure.

Keselowski took some of the 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.”

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