The Racing Capital
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Jul 26, 2015
November 15, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
And then there was one.
It’s down to “One Race to Decide The Chase” as NASCAR “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship” concludes in the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Although three drivers are mathematically eligible for the 2013 Sprint Cup title, it would be a huge upset if four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson does not win his sixth Sprint Cup title Sunday.
Johnson has a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth heading and leads third-place Kevin Harvick, the 2003 Brickyard 400 winner, by 34 points.
With NASCAR’s simplified scoring system where every position on the track equals one point, Kenseth must finish 29 positions higher than Johnson for this season’s winningest driver to wrest the lead away from Johnson and give Kenseth the second Cup title of his career.
By playing offense in every race throughout the Chase, Johnson can play defense in the final race of the season. All he needs is a top-28 finish, and he can celebrate a “six-pack” of Cup titles.
“I’m definitely in the position I want to be in,” Johnson said. “Defending is the place of control of the points lead. We can control our own destiny. It does come with a price. There's a lot of pressure on myself and the team to get things done. We'll deal and manage that as the weekend goes on.
“I’m excited to have this opportunity. Again, we're in the position that we want to be in, that I'm sure any driver would want to be in.”
Kenseth began the season with a victory in the Daytona 500 and opened the Chase with victories at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. In his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth’s only slip was a 20th-place finish at Talladega. That has allowed Johnson the opportunity to take the lead in the Chase – at first by a slim margin. But after last week’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix, he was able to open a sizeable gap in the standings.
“Obviously, we're not going to make up the deficit on performance,” Kenseth said. “I think Jimmie could run 28th through the grass or with three wheels on. He's going to have to have a mechanical problem or crash to make something happen. We'll have to be up in the top five to hold on to second or to overtake Jimmie if he has a problem.”
Harvick’s third-place deficit has virtually eliminated him from the title, so he will simply race as hard as he can in an attempt to score the most points possible. Even if he does that it won’t be enough unless Johnson has an unforeseen issue.
“I think we have to,” Harvick said. “As you approach the last race of the season, know you're at a deficit, we approach it like we did last week, we have to go out and score maximum points. We have to figure out how to do that throughout the weekend.
“Hopefully we can have a good weekend and control the things that we can control.”
An extra honor will go to the winner of this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup title after NASCAR announced on Thursday the 2013 champion will be added to the voting committee for the 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. It marks the first time in any sport that an active participant will help choose members of a Hall of Fame.
“It's a huge honor and pressure in a different way that none of us have experienced before,” said Johnson, who one day will be in that Hall of Fame. “Quickly thinking about it, I think it will help ingrain the current champion into the past and understand more about the history of the sport, the people that came before us. I think it's a cool opportunity for whoever the champion is.”
Harvick has won two races in The Chase, including last Sunday’s contest at Phoenix. That has kept his slim title hopes alive while Johnson increased his advantage over Kenseth.
“I think for us, we've had so many strange things happen throughout my career at the last minute, you at least have to play everything out,” Harvick said. “Just the type of team we are, we race up until the last lap. You just never know what's going to happen.
“Realistically the only things we can control are what we do. It's definitely a really, really long shot. But we'll control the things that are in our control and see how it all falls.”
Kenseth has had to take the same approach to his 28-point deficit and that is throw out the strategy and race to win.
“I think you got to take it serious,” Kenseth said. “You got to control the things that you can control to the best of your ability. You have to go out there with the idea of trying to win and run up toward the front.
“Like I touched on before, we have to outrun Kevin to maintain second. If Jimmie does have a problem, he's so far ahead; the problem needs to be fairly severe. If it is, you need to be pretty far toward the front because hypothetically he could have a problem, if Kevin and I are running around 12th and 13th, Jimmie could still win.
“We have to go out with the idea of trying to win the race, lead laps, be in the front group, trying to get the best finish we can.”
Kenseth has had an outstanding season, which began with his second victory in the Daytona 500. But going up against the “Master of The Chase” in Johnson it only took one slip to lose contact with the champion. That came at Phoenix with a 23rd-place finish.
“It was obviously a really poor performance all around,” Kenseth said. “It was probably our worst performance of the year and really couldn't have came at a worse time.
“On the other hand, that says a lot about our season, how great our season has been, that that was our worst race. Shouldn't say we still ran 23rd or wherever the heck we finished, because that's obviously terrible. It was a tough week.
“We went back and tried to figure out what went wrong. We think we have a handle on what went wrong, tried to figure it out for the next time. Certainly wanted to win. We still have a chance to do that if everything plays out right in our favor, I guess.
“But either way, it's been obviously an incredible year. It's been probably the best year of racing I've ever had in my career. It's been a lot of fun. It's been a great challenge personally and professionally. I've had a great time this year. I'm looking forward to this weekend, closing the season out. I'm actually already looking forward to next season, as well.”
Unlike past seasons where there may have been underlying animosity that existed between the final contenders for the championship (such Denny Hamlin getting served up and barbecued by Johnson and Harvick at this same function in 2010 or Tony Stewart tweaking Carl Edwards in 2011), there is a tremendous amount of mutual respect between Johnson, Kenseth and Harvick.
All three are hard racers who have earned the respect of their peers.
“From my position I'm glad no one decided to give me a hard time,” Johnson said after the formal media availability. “It's going to make tonight a lot easier. I'm happy that it was nice and calm and chill because I'm the guy with the bull's eye on his back. It was a nice day for me. I kind of expected a little bit of ribbing up there.
“This is the situation we all want to be in. I think we all take a lot of pride that we're all here at the end of this year at the press conference. I can vividly recall missing the press conference in 2011. But I'm happy to be here.
“It's easy to be more relaxed. Friday I'm sure that will change the environment a little bit. As Kevin pointed out, there's a great deal of respect between all of us, and I think we're all happy to be here.”
Johnson is the only driver in NASCAR history to win five straight Cup titles. But he encountered a two-year drought with Stewart and Edwards battling to the tie in points in 2011 but Stewart winning the crown on tiebreaker – five wins to Edwards’ one.
Last year, Johnson was engaged in a fierce battle with Brad Keselowski before crashes at Phoenix and Homestead ended Johnson’s quest for a sixth title.
While that was viewed as a lost opportunity for Johnson, that isn’t the one that the driver continues to think about.
“I think 2004 affected me more than last year,” Johnson said. “In 2004, there were so many emotions riding on things, with the airplane going down ... The momentum we had, it seemed was on our side. The 97's (Kurt Busch) wheels fall off. We were coming from the back. We were in position all day long until the last restart. That one hurt more for a lot of reasons.
“Last year we lost control at Phoenix, which kind of started the process. We were in position here to win the race, put a lot of pressure on the 2 (Keselowski). We made two mistakes.
“Stuff happens. It is a team sport. That's one element that I think gets overlooked in our sport a lot. But I feel like last year, I did some of the best driving that I've done, and I felt like I was a better teammate than I'd been in years past.
“When the dust settled, the job that I did, being a part of my race team, I had a lot to be proud of. We had a great year. It still hurts. You hate to miss an opportunity because you never know when they're going to come again. But it was more of a slow burn from Phoenix to Champions Week. You just about get over it until you go to Vegas. Then you go to Vegas, and you're reminded you didn't win the championship.”
Johnson will race the same No. 48 Chevrolet that he drove to a decisive victory at Texas Motor Speedway – the same car that led 255 laps in that race.
“It just feels better,” Johnson said. “It's a more comfortable car for me to drive. That alone is what kept this car in rotation and why we're bringing it back.
“The performance at Texas and Dover the second time certainly helps. But I told Chad after the Michigan race, Let's put this one on the side and use it as often as possible in the Chase. That had a lot to do with it.”
By finding his “comfort zone,” Johnson is pretty much on cruise control on his way to another championship. By the time he’s finished, Johnson could be NASCAR’s first 10-time champion if things work out in his favor.
But don’t ask him about his legacy just yet because he is too focused on the “now” rather than his place in the sport’s history.
“I've not been one to look at stats and pay attention to what's been ahead of me and use that for motivation,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of it's due to the fact I didn't win a lot growing up. I didn't grow up thinking that way.
“Things have changed dramatically since I've gotten involved with Hendrick Motorsports, pairing with Chad Knaus, doing what we've been able to do on the track.
“Of course, yes, I'd love to win this year. I'd love to win a seventh or an eighth. You go on and on. That's what you would want to do.
“Is it realistic? I have no clue. Honestly, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it. I had a friend tell me something that sticks in the back of my mind. I try to think a little bit and dream because he told me, 'Limits begin where the vision ends.’ There needs to be a vision of some kind.
“But I'm really one that lives in the present, focuses on each week. That's just the way I've been. Just show up at each racetrack each week, 36 or 39 of them, you hope you have a shot at the end.”