Hendrick crew respects Keselowski

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Brad Keselowski remembers the first time he had a meaningful conversation with Jimmie Johnson. It came at Charlotte Motor Speedway during a Nationwide Series race in 2008.

"He was doing a two- or three-race stint at JR Motorsports when I was just starting there," Keselowski said. "We had a [red-flag] rain delay.

"I got out of the car and walked over to him because he was outrunning me. I told him, 'I can't hold this thing down. My car is going all over the track, and I feel like I'm going to spin out on any lap.'"

Johnson, a two-time Cup champion at that point, offered a little advice to his young teammate.

"He told me, 'Man, just slow down and take it easy. Make sure you finish the race,'" Keselowski said. "I thought, 'Yeah, just slow down, finish 10th to 15th and don't wreck the car.'"

The rain stopped, the track dried and the green flag waved.

"Then there was a wreck," Keselowski said. "I came back around and saw it was Jimmie. That was my first real memory of him. He was telling me to slow down and not wreck, and that happened to him. We shared a laugh about that the next time I saw him."

Johnson won't be offering any advice to Keselowski now, and vice versa. Keselowski, who is two points behind Johnson entering Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, ESPN), hopes to keep Johnson from earning a sixth Cup crown in seven years.

"Certainly, I have a large appreciation for the things Jimmie has done," Keselowski said. "The championships he's won and his approach to things. But it's time to set those things aside and go after the task at hand, which is being able to beat him."

Can he do it? Can anyone when Johnson and the No. 48 Chevy team are this close to another title?

"Brad has put up a good fight," said four-time champion Jeff Gordon. "If you're putting money down on it, it's hard to go against that 48 team. They're just so rock solid at so many different tracks. They've won five championships, so it's not like they're nervous. They're pretty relaxed and in a comfort zone.

"But Brad is going for it, basically for the first time. Brad has battled. They've hung in there, like last week. To come out of there with a sixth-place finish at Martinsville the way his day was going, that was actually a very positive result. They carried a little bit of momentum for themselves out of there. So I'd kind of call it even."

That's a big statement coming from the co-owner of Johnson's car with Rick Hendrick. But everyone at Hendrick Motorsports knows Keselowski and respects him. Keselowski ran nine Cup races for Hendrick over two seasons (2008 and 2009) while he was a full-time Nationwide driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I knew he was a pretty raw talent and had a lot of good qualities," Earnhardt said of Keselowski. "He definitely made all of our stuff at JR Motorsports look really good there for a couple of years."

Keselowski never wanted to leave the Hendrick family, but staying wasn't an option if he wanted to move up to Cup. Hendrick's four-car stable was full, so Keselowski signed with Roger Penske to race full time in the 2010 Cup season.

Earnhardt said he is amazed at how quickly Keselowski has become a championship contender at Penske Racing.

"We kind of forget just how far along that program has come," Earnhardt said. "To be competitive in a Dodge no less, with a manufacturer that has signed its papers leaving the sport, it's impressive. He should be able to compete like this for years and really enjoy a great career."

High praise, but Earnhardt is sticking with the home team as his championship pick.

"Yeah, I'm a company man first," Earnhardt said. "Jimmie has to have the odds in his favor. Winning five championships in a row isn't done by accident or by luck. I think he has the entire package. Not only is he one of the best drivers in the series, but he has possibly the smartest mind on his pit box in Chad [Knaus] controlling the entire team.

"Everybody around that team, all the road guys, all the pit crew, everybody is just really maxed out in talent and ability. They are a real tough when they have some confidence late in the Chase and leading like this. You are really going to have to work hard and do some miraculous stuff to be able to beat them."

Keselowski doesn't see it that way.

"We like our role in this Chase," Keselowski said. "We know if we do all our things right we will be tough to beat, not just this race, but the championship.

"There are many people who think we are still too young a team to seriously challenge the 48. We like it that way. In reality, we are a very good race team that is primed to take this fight right down to the last lap at Homestead. I'm very confident in our abilities."

So is Johnson, but he doesn't discount Keselowski's ability to challenge him.

Johnson remembers that first day they talked at Charlotte. No doubt he would love to tell Keselowski to slow down now, which would give them both a chuckle.

"We've got a good relationship and feel a great deal of respect for another," Johnson said. "When we met, he was pretty new in the sport, eager and talented. He showed a lot of speed and a lot of potential.

"I was happy to see that he went to Penske. I think it's been a good fit for Brad, but my relationship with him has really been at the track or racing-related. We haven't had a chance to hang out too much off the track."

They won't be hanging out anytime soon, except possibly on the track, wheel-to-wheel, seeing who blinks first.