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Johnson Hitting Stride In Stretch-Run Duel Against Kenseth For Chase Title

It’s down to two drivers with just two races to go in NASCAR’s “Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship.” That duel fittingly pits the two best drivers for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

Four-time Brickyard 400 winner and five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has a seven-point lead over Matt Kenseth heading to Phoenix International Raceway for the AdvoCare 500 on Sunday, Nov. 10.

Kevin Harvick, the 2003 Brickyard 400 winner, is third, 40 points out. That deficit represents nearly an entire race worth of points under NASCAR’s current point system. So unless Johnson and Kenseth both get kidnapped on their way to the track, it would be difficult for Harvick to have a legitimate shot at making up that much ground over the two best drivers this season in the final two races.

Kenseth opened the season by earning his second Daytona 500 victory. It was the first of his series-leading seven wins in 2013. During the first 26 races of the Cup season, known as the regular season, Johnson built a lead in the standings that was nearly more than two races worth of points. He even considered skipping a race if his wife, Chandra, had gone into labor on a weekend for the couple’s second child.

Johnson has an impressive six wins this season with 15 top-five finishes – second only to Kenseth’s seven victories.

The difference is Johnson’s 15 top-fives to Kenseth’s 11. Johnson also has 22 top-10 finishes – three-more than Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kenseth. Johnson has one DNF to Kenseth’s three.

Those are statistics for the first 34 races this season. Kenseth got off to a fast start in the playoffs by winning the first two races of the 10-race Chase, in September at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Kenseth’s only slip was a 20th-place finish at Talladega. That allowed Johnson to take the lead in the Chase by a very slim margin.

“Well, there's still a lot of racing left, and the two tracks that remain on the schedule are very challenging tracks,” Johnson said. “Last year we were in this situation with a points lead. We had a seven-point lead going into Phoenix and had a very bad race and blew a right front tire. Actually had a decent race going but blew out a right front tire and hammered the wall. Really hurt our opportunity and our chance to win a sixth championship then.

“So I'm just not going to put my guard down. We need to go into Phoenix, race well. We finished second there in the spring, so we feel strong about our setup and the performance we should have there. But that doesn't guarantee us anything, and we need to go out and have a good strong, clean weekend.”

Johnson’s recent stretch in the Chase has been indicative of his entire season. Even when Kenseth was on pace to become the season’s winningest driver, Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet were the team to beat.

Then came the AAA Texas 500 last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway when Johnson put a beat-down on the field. He led 255 of the 334 laps in the race, blowing away the competition. Johnson defeated Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 4.390 seconds.

“We've shown great speed and pace at a lot of tracks, especially the 1.5-mile tracks,” Johnson said. “One thing that we aren't very proud of is the opportunities we let slip by through the course of the year on mile-and-a-halfs. The win at Texas was our first mile-and-a-half points win of the year, and we were in position to win a lot of other ones and just dropped the ball in a variety of ways.

“I’m glad that we executed well. We certainly have another big track with Homestead and need to execute there, and then we'll go into the short track this weekend and see what we can do.”

The only time Johnson and the team missed its mark was in the four races before the start of the Chase. He finished 40th at Michigan, 36th at Bristol, 28th at Atlanta and 40th at Richmond. That may have been the worst four-race streak of Johnson’s career, but the team never became nervous during that stretch.

“It certainly challenged us mentally,” Johnson said. “We had to remind ourselves the reasons why we had those bad races and issues behind it, and truthfully those issues were two of the tracks aren't very good for the 48, and I'm so happy they're not in the Chase. The other two tracks we were running very, very strong and had, I think, a tire blow at Pocono. We had an engine issue at Michigan coming from the back and I think had a great chance to win. Then there was another race in there where we had an issue while having a very strong race-winning performance. It was Atlanta, where we were running well but maybe on the first restart everybody checked up in front of me, and I ran into the back of one of my teammates and killed the front of the car.

“We could put a lot of stock in the tracks there that we had speed, we had pace, had good things happen, and that helped us out a lot. And then the other two tracks, we just sweep those under the rug. That would be Richmond and I think Bristol.

“Just move on, forget about them.”

And Johnson is set to move on and claim his sixth Cup title over the next two races, although Kenseth is certainly going to be a fierce contender.

Last year, Johnson battled with young, relative newcomer Brad Keselowski over the final races of the season, only to crash in the final two races that helped Keselowski give team owner Roger Penske his first NASCAR Cup title.

“I've found a lot of peace in expecting the best out of a championship contender, and that's the way it's been this year and every year, to be honest with you,” Johnson said. “I felt like last year there could have been an opportunity to put pressure on Brad and his team, and it was Penske's first championship in Cup. Same for the driver, same for the crew chief, and no one will ever know, but maybe there was a little opportunity there to put pressure on them and put them into a stressful environment.

“We just didn't do our job, and we had our problems in Phoenix and then again at Homestead. And honestly, in Homestead we had them where we wanted to put them and was really putting the pressure on them to see what they could deal with and handle at that point, but then we made too many mistakes and didn't follow through on our side.

“It's really hard to know the truth in it all, but I do feel driver and team competing for their first is dealing with stress and pressure that someone that's racing for their second, third, fourth, that they just don't have that same pressure, and I only know that from my own experience. My first was far more stressful than anything I've done in my life.”

This year, Johnson is battling a savvy veteran and the 2003 Cup champion in Kenseth.

“I've always known Matt's abilities,” Johnson said. “I've raced against him a lot over the years, and just always been extremely impressed. I've known that the JGR cars have been quick. Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Busch) have showed that throughout the years. Matt's experience I think, has brought in a level of consistency, and matching that with the speed those cars have, he's taken it to a new level. And I think the 20 team, there are a lot of new faces over there, and as time goes on, they're going to get stronger and stronger and stronger.

“Put it this way: What they've accomplished in year one, there's no telling what the top is going to be, the peak is going to be. It's amazing. That doesn't happen often, so they're going to be a force for a lot of years.”

The impressive win at Texas may be the boost Johnson needs over the final two races of the season to celebrate a sixth championship. The No. 48 team recently tested at Homestead-Miami Speedway, giving the “Brickyard Legend” confidence at that track.

“The base, foundation of the setup carried from our Texas test into our Homestead test, so I'm excited about that and clearly want to see the same results once we get down to Miami,” Johnson said. “We'll race hard this weekend at Phoenix and then roll into Homestead and try to take care of business down there. But it's going to be a tough two weeks.”

There are just 900 miles of racing left in the NASCAR Sprint Cup season. It’s only fitting the championship will be decided between the two best NASCAR drivers in 2013.

It could all come down to “momentum,” although Johnson believes it takes more than that to become a champion.

“Momentum is nice, and we're happy to have it but I've been doing this long enough where I realize that momentum doesn't guarantee a thing,” Johnson said. “It makes a nice Sunday evening until Friday morning when the NASCAR timing-and-scoring system starts up again, but it doesn't change a thing about Friday practice, qualifying, Saturday practice or that Sunday race. You've got to go out and do your job each and every day.

“It's been a nice, comfortable week, but the pressure cooker will start up there Friday morning when we're on track.”
 

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