Jimmie Johnson: Brad Keselowski needs to ‘mature’

Jonathan Ferrey

Jimmie Johnson respects Brad Keselowski for what he has done on the track, but Johnson feels NASCAR’s new champion needs to “mature”.

If anyone in the NASCAR garage knows about defending a championship it would be Jimmie Johnson - the only driver in history to win five-consecutive Sprint Cup Series titles.

He knows all about the pressure to repeat and fulfill expectations and what it's like to race with a bullseye on your back. This is why Johnson was asked Thursday during NASCAR Media Day to describe what Brad Keselowski will be facing this season as he prepares defense of his Cup title.

"A lot of it depends on how the season starts," Johnson explained. "If you take off where you left off it is pretty easy and you get accustom to what being the champion is, the perks that come with it, the notoriety, and then everything kind of blends in."

"But, once you are a champion at any point following that when you don't run like you should for a period of time, the questions will come. That is when any driver and team is tested. It just depends on when that moment in time is."

Johnson believes Keselowski and his crew chief Paul Wolfe are mentally tough enough to deal with the scrutiny and he sees no reason why the pair shouldn't have continued success this season - even going as far to call them "awesome" competitors.

He does caution about what occurs when a team inevitably hits that stretch where things just go wrong.

"I have had years where we left the Chase successful, started the season successful then midway through the year it became really tough," Johnson said. "Then the pressure sinks in and your mind starts playing some games on you. Those were moments we just had to learn from and work through. I would expect at some point in the year they will go through that too."

However, as much as he respects Keselowski for what he has accomplished on the track, Johnson still feels Keselowski has some growing up to do outside of the race car.

In particular, Johnson was referring to the SportsCenter interview Keselowski did right after he won the championship where he was swigging beer from a large glass.

"As mature as he wants to portray himself as, he had some growing to do," Johnson said. "Now he is in the spotlight as the champion, and I think we all sit back and chuckle at times at some of the things he says and does."

"He is a great guy. He has the best of intentions for our sport; for his sponsor; for his team. He just needs to mature a little."

The week before, Keselowski gave a profanity-laced press conference after the race at Phoenix where he defended himself for what some thought was overaggressive driving.

And as Johnson knows firsthand, winning that first title can be a bit of a culture shock and he said there are "plenty of things to point fingers at" after he won his first championship in 2006.

"I had my own experiences where I would just casually mention something, and I didn't realize how far it went, and maybe I wasn't as accurate as I needed to be," he said. "So, I think he'll have a few moments like that which will rein him back in some, and make him think about what he says and be more calculated."

Johnson wasn't necessarily being critical in his remarks; it was more an observation from someone who has been down that road himself. And he has confidence that Keselowski will adapt to his role as one of the faces of the sport.

"I think he will be more aware of his voice," Johnson said. "Once you are the champion, your voice carries much further. The more success you have in the sport, the voice will carry further and further."

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