Updated: October 3, 2011, 10:27 AM ET

Johnson, Keselowski in uncharted territory

Blount By Terry Blount
ESPN.com
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Jimmie JohnsonJustin Edmonds/Getty ImagesFive-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson faces an uphill climb two races into the 10-race Chase.

For Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, this is new ground, a surprising place where neither driver expected to be.

Johnson never has ranked 10th in the standings two races into the Chase -- not in the past five years when he won the Sprint Cup title, and not the first two years of the Chase when he didn't.

And Keselowski never has ranked as high as third in the standings, Chase or no Chase, in his Cup career.

Can a young driver in true title contention for the first time handle the pressure down the stretch and continue to succeed?

And can the seasoned pro going for a sixth consecutive title keep his cool and get his groove back to challenge again at the end?

My guess is yes and yes. History tells us that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus won't panic. And this season tells us that Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe are contenders to stay.

It's only two weeks into the 10-race playoff. But for the moment, it's Johnson and Knaus who seem a little rattled, and Keselowski and Wolfe who are the duo making the most of every situation.

"We needed to get through the races where we didn't feel like we were very good," Keselowski said after finishing second behind Tony Stewart on Sunday at New Hampshire. "We're just executing very well, and it's another good sign, good momentum and good mojo."

Some people are starting to wonder whether Johnson and the No. 48 Chevy team have lost their mojo.

"We didn't have a car like we thought we would," Johnson said Sunday after his 18th-place finish. "It just didn't have the speed, and some pit calls didn't work out our way. But we'll take this one on the chin and go on to the next one."

Johnson showed his frustration with the car on the team radio Sunday. He also had a couple of late-race bumping incidents with Kyle Busch that caused Johnson to drop back.

"Yeah, he was being a bit stubborn," Johnson said of Busch. "But it was racing. It wasn't like he was trying to wreck me or anything. When we got together the second time, it whipped the wheel out of my hand and bent something in the steering up front. It was just the end of a bad day."

Johnson didn't have a great car. Neither did Keselowski, but Wolfe made the right adjustments to get the No. 2 Dodge near the front at the end.

"What we've done well this year is stay focused, try to stay calm," Wolfe said. "I know it's tough for Brad when he's at the back running. We kept making adjustments to our race car each stop. We kept working on it, and we got our car where I felt like we were competitive."

Those moves over the past two months have transformed Keselowski's season. He's 11 points behind Stewart in first and only four points behind Kevin Harvick in second.

"It's funny because 10 races ago we left Loudon [N.H.] 23rd in points," Keselowski said. "Who would have ever thought we'd be third in 10 weeks?"

And who would have thought he would be seven spots and 18 points ahead of Johnson with eight races to go? Certainly not Johnson, but he knows it's a long two months to go.

"Anything is possible," he said. "Obviously, we need eight great ones from here. We can't run 10th anymore. We need a bunch of W's. My optimism is still high."

Before the Chase began, Johnson hinted that a playoff newbie like Keselowski would start hearing voices in his head as the pressure mounted.

Keselowski laughed it off at the time. A couple of more weeks like the past two, maybe he'll ask Johnson what he's hearing in his head.

Ed Hinton column | Racing Live! rewind | Recap | Results

Nationwide Series: Bring on Dover!

The Nationwide Series was off, a much-needed break after racing on 14 consecutive weekends. The Nationwide teams return to the track this weekend at Dover.

With six races remaining, the championship is down to a two-man battle between Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler, who is 14 points behind Stenhouse.

Both drivers are trying to win the title for the first time, but they are on opposite ends of the career spectrum.

Stenhouse, who turns 24 on Oct. 2, is competing in his second full season in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Sadler is 36, racing full-time in this series for the first time since 1998 after spending 12 years in Sprint Cup.

Camping World Truck Series: Kyle Busch dominates again

Kyle Busch won his sixth Camping World Truck Series race of the season Saturday at New Hampshire. He started on the pole and led 165 of 175 laps.

In related news that day, Hercules was pulling the wings off flies.

More importantly, and much more interesting for the series, Austin Dillon has a two-point lead over James Buescher and leads by seven points over Johnny Sauter in the title fight with six races remaining.

The trucks will be at Kentucky Speedway this weekend. My advice to those of you who plan to attend: Leave early.

Recap | Results

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

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