The battle for the Sprint Cup championship between Jimmie Johnson (left) and Brad Keselowski is shaping up to potentially be as good as last year's -- if not better.
Believe it or not, falling to second place in the Sprint Cup standings after Sunday's race at Martinsville may have been the best thing to happen to Brad Keselowski.
The driver of the No. 2 Dodge is now No. 2 in the standings, and ironically, just two points behind new series leader Jimmie Johnson.
And that could potentially wind up being the most fortuitous place for Keselowski to be. For instead of being the hunted, Keselowski is now the hunter, which plays far better to his driving style.
Sure, being ahead for four of the first six weeks of the 10-race Chase was great for the driver of the Blue Deuce, but at the same time, he had to constantly worry about his closest challengers and rivals, namely Johnson and, up until Sunday, Denny Hamlin.
But with the electrical issues in Hamlin's car that dropped him down to fifth place in the standings now, 49 points in arrears to Johnson, the Chase has essentially come down to a two-driver battle between the drivers of the No. 48 and the No. 2.
And with three races remaining—Texas this coming Sunday, Phoenix next Sunday and the season finale at Homestead three weeks from now—much of the pressure that had been on Keselowski when he was atop the standings is now gone.
That lack of pressure is now thrust upon Johnson's shoulders. He's the one who has to keep looking over his shoulder now. He's the one who has to worry more about making a costly mistake than anyone else. He's the one who has to have nothing short of a flawless pit crew in the remaining races.
Granted, Keselowski still has to worry about making mistakes or that his pit crew is equally up to the same tasks that Johnson's team is.
But with the margin between him and Johnson only two points, sometimes it's better to work from behind than to work harder trying to stay in front.
Of course, Johnson has been down this road quite a few more times than Keselowski has been—five times to be exact, all which ultimately wound up in a record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships.
But here's the distinct difference: If you go back over time in his previous five championship seasons, Johnson never had the kind of pursuer chasing him as he does now with Keselowski.
Say what you want about teammate Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart and some of Johnson's other top pursuers in each Chase from 2006 through 2010, their hunger for the championship—in my opinion—was not as strong as Keselowski's is now.
Call me crazy or a Keselowski sympathizer—of which I'm neither—but I just have a gut feeling about this kid that he is still going to wind up stealing the championship away from Johnson at Homestead.
Remember one other thing: In most of his five championships, Johnson had a decent points lead in the standings heading into the season-ending race at Homestead. But if Keselowski remains, say, within five points or less of Johnson after the next two races, we're going to see a battle equal to—if not perhaps even better—than last year's finale between Stewart and Edwards.
Keselowski has already shown he knows how to get inside Johnson's head. Remember the opening Chase race at Chicago last month? When Keselowski exited pit road and prematurely pulled out into traffic—right in front of Johnson, who had to jump on the binders to avoid a crash—he made Johnson react in an uncharacteristic way, leaving the driver of the No. 48 to play defense the rest of the race, rather than be on the offensive.
Is Brad Keselowski in better position to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup title than Jimmie Johnson?
End result: Keselowski won the race and, until Sunday, pretty much had the upper hand in the one-on-one battle with Johnson over the next five races.
There's no question Martinsville has been one of Keselowski's weaker tracks. He has readily admitted it, but also said coming into Sunday's race that if he could escape with a top 10, he'd have achieved his goal.
And that's exactly what he did, finishing sixth. While Johnson indeed won the race, consider how hard he had to work for what, in the bigger picture, was not as commanding of a changing of the guards as one would think.
For, Johnson managed just a nine-point swing in the battle between himself and the Polish Rocket. Coming into Sunday's race, Johnson was seven points behind Keselowski. Leaving Martinsville, his lead is just two points.
What's more, at this writing, Keselowski still has the edge in what potentially could be the same kind of tiebreaker as we saw in last year's Chase —that of wins, provided Johnson doesn't add any more wins to his record in the remaining three races. Heading to Texas, Keselowski has five wins and Johnson has four.
"It's going to wind up just like we've been thinking, it's all going to come down to the final race at Homestead," Keselowski said after Sunday's race.
And while Johnson has the edge now, he's the one who has to protect that lead. He can't race with the kind of abandon he could if he wasn't No. 1 in the points right now.
Keselowski, on the other hand, can. And that's going to be the beauty of the three remaining Chase races, where just like we see in the NFL, it's going to be Johnson's defense against Keselowski's offense.
And what wins games—and in this case, races?
Offense, all the way.
So while Keselowski may have lost his points lead—at least temporarily—he's arguably in a much better place and situation at this point with three races to go.
Stewart and Edwards set the bar in the closing races of last year's Chase. If things play out the way I think they may, don't be surprised if Johnson and Keselowski wind up raising that bar.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski