This is the fourth in a series of stories reflecting on Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR success from those who competed against him or with him at Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson has returned to the industry as a stakeholder in Petty GMS and will run select races in 2023.
Finding a Jimmie Johnson story in the NASCAR garage is not hard. Whether it’s about what it felt like to compete against him, appreciating the dynasty of Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team, or the type of person Johnson is, most will have something to say.
Brad Keselowski is no different, falling into the latter category.
“My No. 1 story for Jimmie is when I had a wreck at Road Atlanta in a test, and everyone else drove by but him; he stopped and helped,” Keselowski says. “He had a certain class to him in the sense of empathy. He was never an ego guy. I guess we all have our egos, but his ego, given his performance, was incredibly low, which I respected about him and still respect about him to this day.”
The 2011 crash — which Keselowski tweeted afterward was the result of a brake failure that sent him head-on into a wall without a SAFER barrier — left him with a broken left ankle. Four days later, Keselowski won at Pocono Raceway.
Keselowski was once a de facto teammate to Johnson when he ran for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. In 2008 when Keselowski made his first two starts in the Cup Series, he was driving a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Two years later, Keselowski was at Team Penske but struggled initially. When put into the No. 2 car, Keselowski became a contender and a new foe for Johnson. Keselowski won the 2012 championship, a year before Johnson took his sixth crown.
“What always impressed me the most — in retrospective — about Jimmie is just how cool and calm he always seemed,” says Keselowski. “In a lot of environments, surrounded by some people that could rile you up pretty quickly, and how he was always California cool. I have a great amount of respect for that because he found a way to deliver in some tough spots.”
Just once in his 35 wins did Keselowski finish directly ahead of Johnson in the finishing order. That was in 2012 at Chicagoland Speedway where Johnson actually led the most laps.
On the other hand, Keselowski has finished second to Johnson four times. Twice at Texas Motor Speedway (2012 and 2015), Dover Motor Speedway (2014), and Martinsville Speedway (2016).
The ’12 Texas race was one of their most memorable battles, coming late in the season as the two sat first and second in the championship hunt. Keselowski and Johnson swapped the lead multiple times in the last 10 laps, running each other hard side-by-side and sliding around the racetrack.
In the ’15 race at Texas, Keselowski led the most laps (312) while Johnson led six laps. Johnson was already out of the championship hunt, and Keselowski ended up missing a spot in the Championship 4, which the victory would have clinched.
The two also had a big run-in at Kentucky Speedway in 2020. Keselowski turned Johnson on a restart, which he called unavoidable contact, but Johnson was none too pleased.
Although rivals, it was one of respect and hard racing. Keselowski and Johnson never had a big feud, and competing against Johnson was something Keselowski found both fun and aggravating.
“No doubt, both,” he says. “It was aspirational, for sure. I take a lot of pride in the success we had and looking back, I’m glad I got to compete with him.”
Despite competing against Johnson and the time spent around him, Keselowski can’t speak to the work ethic of the seven-time champion — a quality that others have said played a big part in Johnson’s success.
Keselowski has a more lighthearted view of things.
“I think Jimmie was really good at making people think he worked very hard,” Keselowski said. “Whether he did or not, I’m not sure because I never saw it. He did the whole workout thing and all of that, and I’m sure there was a lot of validity to it. Honestly, I don’t think that makes race cars go fast; I don’t think that made him go fast.
“But I think it told a great story to the garage and the media that made them feel good when he was fast. Like, ‘Oh that makes sense. He worked out.’ OK, I saw Tony Stewart eat a cheeseburger before the race, and he was fast as (expletive). So, I don’t think that’s why he was fast, but it created this really great cover for when he had such an incredible team, and it was really a memorable branding play as much as anything else.”
And yet, Keselowski doesn’t take anything away from what Johnson accomplished and believes as time goes on, it will be appreciated more.
“I guess what I saw the most out of Jimmie is undoubtedly he had the best equipment, but he was cool enough and smart enough to know when to use that equipment and when to settle for a second or third because it wasn’t in the cards,” says Keselowski. “At any point in time, a lot of drivers in Cup will have great equipment, but having great equipment and getting the most out of it is completely different. And he was able to know when to go and when not to go and was really, really good at playing those games of understanding what the landscape was. That was impressive to me.”
• This story has been updated to clarify that Keselowski’s 2012 title came before Johnson’s sixth.