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Keselowski cites Senna as inspiration

16 November 2012

Given that NASCAR racing seems very far removed from the world of F1 Grand Prix events, it was strange indeed to hear Brad Keselowski admit that one of his sporting heroes is the three-time FIA world champion Aryton Senna, and that he was looking at the iconic Brazilian for an example as how to approach this weekend's title-deciding season finale.

"One of my favourite movies in the whole wide world is this documentary on Ayrton Senna," said the 28-year-old from Michigan. "There's this really powerful scene in that movie that sticks with me when I think about this weekend. I think about this scene in the movie when they talked about him at Monaco, which was his — just his phenomenal track that he was so strong at.

"How he had this huge lead over his teammate at the time, obviously had an identical car, which showcased what kind of talent Ayrton had, and they were coming down to the closing laps of the race, and they told him to slow down, you have a huge lead, don't worry, just slow down, just — and he wrecked," he explained.

"And I think of that as I approach this weekend. I'm going to go out there and play my game, race my way. That's got us to this point, and if we do that, we'll be fine, and I think that's our approach."

Looking at Senna's example is one of the ways that Keselowski is handling the mind games being played by both sides in the final race showdown for the Sprint Cup title with five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Even though Keselowski goes into the decider on Sunday with a formidable 20pt lead over Johnson, both sides are all too aware that anything can still happen - and Johnson for one is not giving up.

"I do believe. I do believe we can win our sixth title," he said. "A lot can happen. So we just need to make sure we're buttoned up and do the best job we can and see where the chips fall."

Johnson is a fan of many different types of motorsport - not just F1 but also the IZOD IndyCar Series, which he pointed out had particular relevance this weekend as Keselowski drives for Penske Racing - the team that lost the IndyCar championship in a thrilling last-race upset in September

"The IndyCar championship is the best example of that this isn't over until the chequered flag falls," he added. "Another point of motivation and optimism: we look at the IndyCar championship and how it unfolded at Fontana. It seemed like it was a lay‑up race, and things can happen. This is racing."

Roger Penske's IndyCar team went into the final race of the season with their driver Will Power comfortably in the points lead, only for Ryan Hunter-Reay to come from behind and clinch the championship at the line. Johnson hopes that by planting a seed of doubt about history repeating itself for Penske Racing, he can throw Brad Keselowski off his game.

"I haven't spoken that much with the Indy guys," responded Keselowski, brushing off Johnson's mind games. "I saw Will a couple weeks ago but that's about it. I mean they've got their own lives and things going on. They know how significant this is to RP, absolutely."

Keselowski is very close to Penske ever since he persuaded the Captain that they would win a championship together should Penske sign him up as a driver for the team.

"Well, I won him one!" laughed Keselowski, referring back to their 2010 success in the Nationwide Series. "I felt very confident that if Roger and I worked together that it was just a matter of time before we'd be successful, if we truly worked together, not just, you know, hire me, throw me in the seat and let's go but truly work together with a common goal that I just talked about in the previous question. And I feel like that's how we've been able to be successful."

Delivering a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship to Penske would mean something of a different order of magnitude altogether for both driver and owner, Keselowski admitted.

"To win a championship for Roger would certainly be a huge accomplishment considering everything he's been through in American motorsports and beyond," he explained. "You look at his legacy in the sport and you can't help but feel that he's been a little bit slighted on the NASCAR side. We'd like to get that job done, and I think we have the opportunity to do it. I think we have the team and car, and it's just a matter of putting all the pieces together."

While Johnson is on the back foot after a flat tyre put him in the wall at Phoenix, Keselowski also has to bounce back from being penalised for a rules infringement at the end of last weekend's race. He was fined $25,000 and put on NASCAR probation for using his mobile phone to tweet messages from his car while the field was stopped under a red flag. He was also criticised (but not penalised) for his use of language in post-race remarks in which he attacked the "ridiculous" on-track antics of Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer which had caused the stoppage.

He denied that either had proved a distraction in the build-up to the Homestead-Miami showdown: "They're just kind of neutral to me - other than the money, I'd really like to have that back!" he smiled. "I didn't really apologize, per se, for the remarks. I apologised for the vulgarity but the remarks I stand behind. And I believe, with a passion, that our sport needs a level in intensity that we saw at Phoenix. It needs that on the track in a battle for the win and a battle for position, not in a battle in the garage."

As for the issue of whether he would back down from his use of social media in future, Keselowski said no - but he would have to be more careful about what he took into the car in future."I think it means that you can still be involved in social media, but I think NASCAR has certainly said that they want to draw a line as to what you can do specifically in the car, and I think that's what it means for the future," he explained.

The reason for the fine is that NASCAR bans the use of digital communications devices in the car that can't be monitored by race control, in case teams use it to send instructions or technical information to their driver. Keselowski dismissed suggestions that the team could send him data on the electronic fuel injection (EFI) usage of the car that could have helped him at the restart after the red flag.

"You have to understand how that system works to know that that's not a possibility," he insisted. "With technology in general, it is possible but not with the system that NASCAR utilises.” Even so, Keselowski admitted that it's something that could become an issue down the line, and he could understand NASCAR wanting to draw a firm line in the sand as early as possible.

But everything that happened at Phoenix is now in the rear view mirror and all the focus is on this weekend's events, which start with qualifying on Friday evening and the race itself at 2pm local time on Sunday. Ironically given Keselowski's Senna reference, that puts it head-to-head with the return of F1 to the United States at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, after five years' absence from the race calendar.

In the mental stakes, it would appear that Jimmie Johnson should have the upper hand: he's been here before and won the title five times already. Knowing he's been there and done that successfully must surely be a help in his war of nerves with Keselowski this weekend?

"One thing I've learned is that regardless of how experienced anyone is in this championship battle, at some point the magnitude of it hits you," he said. "At some point, [Brad] may be very comfortable and calm now, it may not happen until he's in the car, but at some point that magnitude hits, and I've lived through it five times. That's a turning moment, and we'll see how he responds."

Johnson was certainly keeping up the fighting talk: "I definitely think it's possible. You look at our bad luck last weekend, there's still a race here, and there's still tyres on these race cars, and something can happen there.

"This just isn't any other race; this is the championship race, and there's a lot that comes with that,' he stressed. "I'm very optimistic. I think that we'll have a very fast race car, and we'll go out onto the race track and do all that we can each and every lap of every practice session qualifying and race, and see how things play out."

If Johnson were to claim pole, win and race and lead most laps, he would still need Keselowski to finish outside the top 15 for him to claim his sixth title over the youngster. But with the IndyCar finale once more in mind - where Will Power crashed out of the race early on to give Hunter-Reay his chance - Johnson was quick to point out that it was far from in the bag for Keselowski this weekend.

"To think that a top 15 finish is a lay‑up is tough, " he insisted. "This garage area is tough, the weight of this race, I don't care who you are, it'll show up at some point in time and thoughts will run through your head.

"With all that being said, a 15th place finish is not a lay‑up for these guys," he repeated. "So I have a little bit of stock in that, and we'll see how they respond. Their trends this year have been strong, but this is a different race."

Keselowski knows that all too well, and is taking nothing for granted. In fact, he said that he be happier if the championship battle was a lot closer than the current 20pt difference between him and Johnson going into this weekend's decider.

"Ask me how I felt when he blew a tyre out at Phoenix and I think they're expecting me to, you know, rah-rah about it," he said. "No, it's quite the opposite of that. I was really disappointed because I want the pressure. I wanted the pressure.

"I wanted the pressure of coming down here and having to win the race to win the championship because that's the type of person I am," he explained. "I want the ball. I want to be on the field on the last play with the ball thrown to me. And that's what that moment is. So I guess that shows you that there's definitely some pressure but I like it. I thrive in it, that's what I want."

As for how he would approach the weekend and the race in particular, Keselowski cycled back round to the lessons he'd learned from Aryton Senna: going out there, playing his game, continuing racing his way.

"I've been going for the championship all my life, and specifically this particular one for the last nine races," he said. "So Homestead pays the same amount of points as Chicago did and the same amount of points that Martinsville did when Jimmie won. It's the same, and there's no reason to change that approach, and that's why I feel that way."

As well as the Cup championship, the 2012 Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series titles will also be decided this weekend at Homestead.

The final race in the 22-race Truck season is held on Friday evening, with five drivers still technically in the running but in reality the championship coming down to whether James Buescher can hold his 11pt lead over Timothy Peters and Ty Dillon.

The Nationwide Series decider is on Saturday afternoon, with reigning champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. holding the same 20pt lead over Elliott Sadler that Keselowski has over Johnson in the Cup series. Stenhouse could alto theoretically be overhauled by Austin Dillon, Ty's brother and the 2011 Truck series champion in his rookie season in Nationwide.

And then all eyes will be on Homestead for the Cup decided on Sunday afternoon - while at the same time, F1 re-establishes itself in the US over in the west, in a race that could decide the world championship between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.

It's certainly going to be a busy weekend for motor sport in America.