NASCAR at Phoenix: Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski share mutual respect

Last week at Texas, NASCAR championship contenders Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski put on a fierce duel which ended with Johnson celebrating his second win in as many weeks.

Afterward, despite losing ground to Johnson in the standings, Keselowski made it a point to stop in Victory Lane and congratulate Johnson on his latest triumph – something no other driver did.

Johnson appreciated the gesture so much he tweeted his appreciation to his rival with the hashtag "#respect." Keselowski responded cryptically with, "Thanks for helping me out in Road Atlanta," referring to a savage crash in a test session there last year that left him with a broken left ankle.

When asked earlier in the week about his tweet, Keselowski declined to elaborate beyond saying Johnson "cared when he didn't have to."

But on Friday at Phoenix International Raceway, Johnson expounded upon the relationship between the two drivers and why they share mutual respect for one another.

At the Road Atlanta incident, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were some of the first people on the scene.

"We helped him get out of the car and find his bearings," Johnson said. "And we checked up on him when he was at the hospital. I mean, it was a heck of a crash. I was just concerned for him, and maybe that was something different than he had experienced with other racers."

Did that explain why Keselowski didn't spin Johnson at Texas, even though it would have given him a comfortable points lead with two races to go?

Perhaps in a small way. But the Penske Racing driver said it had more to do with the respect Johnson has shown him on the track than anything else.

"Jimmie has never done anything to me to deserve to be raced in that manner," Keselowski said. "When I race people the way I race them, I race them off a code that usually exists based off of how they race me. And Jimmie has never put me in a spot where I had to stand my ground.

"That's my No. 1 reason, because he's never tried to push me around."

Johnson, however, wasn't surprised that Keselowski chose not intentionally wreck him. In his eyes, to have done so would have tainted anything that could have potentially been gained.

"There are only a few people out there wired like that, and in today's world there is probably less – like it or not," Johnson said. "It's just the way it is. People race really, really hard and I think Brad did.

"To just go into a corner and dump someone, man, that's tough to deal with. There are a variety of things that come with that and I don't think there are many guys out there who would haul off and dump their competition for the championship."

But the respect Keselowski has shown upon Johnson isn't something he necessarily did earlier in his career. When he first came on the scene, Keselowski earned a reputation for being aggressive on the track and had well-documented run-ins with Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

However, with time and some maturity, Keselowski has learned to channel his aggressiveness – something Johnson certainly took note of last week.

"I really feel like he was extremely aggressive and had that mindset of 'go for broke,' but we all evolve as drivers," Johnson said. "And I think he was more in control of his vehicle Sunday night (than) when he was new to the sport."

Now, 15 months after the incident at Road Atlanta, that camaraderie and admiration between Johnson and Keselowski is being put to the test as they square off for the Cup championship. But don't think for a second that just because they share respect for one another doesn't mean they're not going to race each hard other these final two weeks.

Keselowski, in particular, professes that while he has a "tremendous amount of respect" for Johnson, he also wants to beat him "with every inch of my body." But Keselowski refuses to allow that esteem to be used against him.

"There is a difference between respect and laying over for someone," he said. "I'm going to push him as hard as I can, and if he does win it – which I don't plan on letting happen – he's going to look back at this time period and say he's never fought harder than he's had to fight me. And that's how I plan on racing him."

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