Since the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup kicked off in September, it's been a battle to the finish between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.
Both have proven to be formidable opponents -- the five-time champion and the challenger.
Johnson has exuded California cool. His experience in mastering the fine points of Chase racing has served him and his No. 48 team well once again.
Keselowski, hailing from the Motor City, has incorporated his seat-of-the-pants engineering education earned on his family's race team to evolve into one of the most intuitive racers in the garage. And his passion for racing is infectious. The entire team -- including owner Roger Penske -- has bought in.
Yes, there were 12 drivers in the Chase, but Johnson and Keselowski distinguished their missions early.
Keselowski took the points lead in Race 1 of the segment by winning at Chicagoland -- but even in that event, Johnson finished right behind him. The following week the pair swapped positions, with Johnson's runner-up finish at New Hampshire. But Keselowski, who had never posted a Top 10 at Dover and led just two laps in five starts, elevated his game for the victory at a track where Johnson boasted seven wins, including in the previous race there.
At Talladega, a race expected to be the Chase "wild card," Johnson and Keselowski simply survived, but Keselowski's advantage expanded to 14 points after four races. While Keselowski dominated the race at Charlotte, he ran out of fuel 25 laps before the end of the race and finished 11th. Although Johnson finished third, Keselowski maintained a seven-point lead. The pair finished eighth (Keselowski) and ninth (Johnson) at Kansas Speedway but since Johnson led a lap, nothing changed.
With the races winding down, the Lowe's crew went to go-mode at Martinsville Speedway. Johnson won the race from the pole and assumed the points lead by two. When he duplicated the feat at Texas Motor Speedway the following week, the momentum shifted in Johnson's favor -- until last Sunday at Phoenix.
If Keselowski had a mulligan, it was running out of fuel in Charlotte. Still, he recovered. When Johnson crashed at Phoenix on Lap 235 and inevitably finished 32nd, Keselowski extended his advantage to a Chase-high 20-point lead.
Disappointment couldn't begin to describe Johnson's demeanor in the quest for his "six-pack."
However, Johnson's not one to go away quietly. While he won't resort to head games to the degree of some drivers, his reputation would be intimidation enough for most.
Yet, given Keselowski's mental toughness -- as described by his closest confidants time and again -- it would take more than the "seeds" of doubt Johnson attempted to sow leading up to Sunday's showdown.
"He's a calculating driver," Penske said. "He's smart. I think his windshield is much wider than many of the drivers'. He's seeing what's going on, and I think he's rehearsed it with (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe), things that can happen.
"He's done it with the team, and he's a student. And I think today we've got a great athlete, a great race driver but also someone that's thinking. He's a thinking-man's driver, which is very important in today's sport."
Johnson has competed against top talent before, particularly under his own roof at Hendrick Motorsports with Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. At 28, Keselowski hasn't come close to compiling the body of work comparative to most of Johnson's former challengers.
But it would be foolish to underestimate Keselowski even at this early stage of his career.
Keselowski's mantra has become, "There is pressure applied and pressure felt." If he was feeling any pressure on Saturday, other than in the brevity of his answers, Keselowski wasn't showing it. Neither has his team over the course of the Chase. Wolfe and his men have remained as even-keeled as they were on day one two years ago.
However, Keselowski insists he will not relax before the race - other than his habitual tweeting. In the hours leading up to the green flag, he will "focus on what I need to get the job done."
"Whether that's with the parts and the componentry that combines itself in the car to make the most speed and efficiency or the decisions that I need to make inside of it," said the driver who worked as his family's team engineer at 14. "Other than that, I don't really plan on doing much relaxing. I plan on focusing."
On Sunday, both drivers will offer their all. Despite how equal he and Johnson have been all season, over the last couple of weeks the advantage has gone to Keselowski. Unless the racing gods have their say in the outcome of the Ford 400, NASCAR will crown a new champion on Sunday -- Keselowski.
"It's going to come down to whether it was meant to be or not meant to be," Keselowski said. "It's going to come down to if there is a wreck in
front of you or something of that nature to probably be our undoing. And if that happens, then that's just like I said before, it's a pure act of God."
It's official Richard Petty Motorsports announced on Saturday that Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola both will return to the organization next season.
"We've got it pretty lined up for next year with drivers, sponsors and Ford, so hopefully everything is lined up," Petty said on Saturday.
Ambrose and Almirola are 18th and 21st, respectively, in the Sprint Cup points standings. Ambrose won his second career race at Watkins Glen in August. Almirola's best showing of the season came last month at Martinsville Speedway when he finished fourth.
Numbers game 0: Nationwide races won by Kyle Busch in 2012 -- ending an eight-year streak of victories.
1: Nationwide win for Steve Letarte -- in his only NNS appearance -- and the first series win for driver Regan Smith who joins JR Motorsports full time next year.
2: Nationwide Series championships for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
4: Nationwide drivers titles for Roush Fenway Racing.
4: Nationwide Series owners titles for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Say what? Joe Gibbs ran into Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the media center after JGR won the owners championship and Junior's JR Motorsports team won the race. The conversation quickly turned to the Washington Redskins, with the Super Bowl-winning coach extending an invitation to NASCAR's most popular priver -- and huge Skins fan: "Dan (Snyder) would love to have you in the box," Gibbs said. Earnhardt replied jokingly, "Yeah, he invites me."