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Top Two Take Mean-And-Clean Racing To Texas

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 1 2013

Chase contenders Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are not into pushing buttons. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – It was an unscripted moment that spoke volumes about the respectful rivalry simmering between NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship contenders Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.

Deadlocked in points heading into Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Kenseth was asked Friday morning if he knew “what buttons to push” on Johnson during their remaining three Chase for the Cup battles. Before Kenseth could answer, Johnson poked his head around the corner in the track’s infield media center, smiling and eager to hear Matt’s reply. That drew a laugh from the assembled media and even Matty Ice, who is looking to cap his first year at Joe Gibbs Racing with his second Cup trophy.

“I’m not really…it might change from his end if we’re still in it all the way to the end, but I’m just not really into all the head games,” said Kenseth, tied with Johnson at 2,294 points heading into Round 8 of the 10-race Chase. “I’m not smart enough to be in the head games and insults and some of the stuff we’ve seen happen over the last few years. I’m just not – my brain is over capacity already with trying to figure out how to make my race car fast enough to be the best.

“They always say, if you want to be The Man, you have to beat The Man and he’s always definitely been The Man.”

That’s Johnson, a five-time Cup champion and driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS fielded by Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are acknowledged masters of the Chase format. Despite their tie in points, Kenseth, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot “Let’s Do This” Toyota

Matt Kenseth fell behind Jimmie Johnson are neck and neck heading to Sunday's race in Fort Worth. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

Camry, is the championship leader based on his seven victories to Johnson’s five. The tiebreaker rule has been invoked just once to settle a Cup championship. Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the 2011 season deadlocked in points, with “Smoke” claiming his third title via five wins to Edwards’ one.

A shared point lead with three races remaining is unprecedented in either Chase history or since 1975, when the current point structure was implemented. In 1996, Jeff Gordon led Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte by a single point. A year ago, Johnson held a two-point lead over champion-to-be Brad Keselowski of Penske Racing.

“It’s definitely a tense period of time,” said Johnson, second in Friday’s opening practice around TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval at 194.791 mph. The 90-minute session was topped by Martin Truex Jr. at 195.298 mph in the No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota Camry.

“Actually, it’s a lot of fun once I can really slow things down and pay attention to it,” Johnson said of the Chase. “Having another shot at a championship this year is something I’m very proud of, and I know our race team is. Having to race so hard for it and fight for each and every point as we have is, in most

Jimmie Johnson has had problems at 1.5-mile tracks this year. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

situations, a lot of fun. It’s not over yet. There is still a lot to go. It’s going to be this way to the end. I’m excited and looking forward to it.

“We tested here (last week) and I feel good about our car. We should have a good weekend. We just wrapped up a few days in Homestead (Fla.), so I feel good about our stuff. When we pulled in to test here and at Homestead, we noticed Joe Gibbs Racing was there, too, so it’s not like we’ve been getting a leg up on Matt. Jeff for that matter has been at test sessions, too. It’s hard to feel like we found something over them, but we had two really good test sessions.”

The point-leader entering the season’s final three races went on to win the championship in five of the Chase’s first seven seasons. But in each of the last two, that’s changed. Stewart overhauled Edwards in 2011 and Keselowski overcame Johnson’s advantage a year ago.

Kenseth and Johnson have enjoyed similar success at TMS – each has won twice, although Johnson’s victories in 2007 and last November were scored during the Chase. Kenseth’s average finish at TMS is 8.5; Johnson is close at 9.1. Kenseth owns the track’s best Driver Rating of 106.5; Johnson is second at 103.3. The telling edge goes to Kenseth in laps-led – 72 to Johnson’s 443.

The most glaring difference in 2013 – first season for the series’ Gen-6 car – is in 1.5-mile performance. Four of Kenseth’s seven wins have come on intermediate tracks. Kyle Busch, Kenseth’s JGR teammate, won April’s Texas race from the Coors Light Pole. Johnson has been shut out on the 1.5s this season – as have HMS teammates Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Johnson finished sixth at TMS in April while Kenseth was 12th. Neither led a lap.

Johnson’s first victory in Fort Worth, in which he and Kenseth traded the lead three times over the race’s final seven laps, might serve as a preview of Sunday’s 334-lap/501-miler. Johnson won in ’07 by 0.944-seconds. “Both of us (were) sideways and just driving the wheels off the cars,” Johnson recalled. “From my standpoint I think it was an amazing race.”

Kenseth, the 2003 champion while at Roush Fenway Racing, said he always implores his team to get him into position to win. “Then when you can’t hold on, you feel like it’s on you,” said Kenseth, who was ninth on Friday’s opening speed chart at 193.057 mph. “I do remember that day (in 2007), he (Johnson) was faster, ran us down. I think he was leading the points and we were pretty much out of the championship

Matt Kenseth had a tough time at the Sprint Cup open test at Texas Motor Speedway on Tuesday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

battle at the time, realistically out of it. I guess mathematically we were in it. So, man I raced him as hard as I could figuring that, hoping that he would be a little bit cautious and I would be able to win the race and hang on, but I couldn’t. He did everything he could and beat us.

“I do remember that. It was a heck of a race. I hope to turn the tables some day and be able to beat him. He’s beat me on a couple of them late –beat me at Las Vegas one time – passed me on (Turn) 4 on the last lap and we led all day and beat me on that one. It still stings. He actually has that picture hung up somewhere. I saw a TV special on him once and he had that picture in the background with him crossing the finish line ahead of me. I remember that. Hopefully we can turn the tables and pull off a win on him toward the end some day.”

In addition to that wall-hanging, Johnson apparently has a photographic memory similar to that of Kenseth. “Those moments do sting and I have one with Carl Edwards in Atlanta,” Johnson said. “I see the video occasionally and it still hits me deep: ‘Man I can’t believe I came that close to winning and it slipped away 50 yards from the finish line.’ Those do stick around. It doesn’t make me want to crash Carl or dislike him or race him any harder, you just hate that it got away.

“Matt and I have always had a very good respect for one another on the track especially in the Cup Series at this level. We have been able to get to that line and respect each other on the track. Accidents do happen and stuff can happen. We are out there racing hard for our team for a championship and we will see how things turn out. I expect really good racing as we get through these next three races.”

The championship runnerup at TMS actually has performed better than the champion. In eight races – the track joined the Chase in 2005 – the second-place driver has won three times with five finishes among the top-five and six in the top-10. That compares with the champion’s two wins, four top -fives and six top-10s. While Texas competition has changed the points lead three times, only one of those leaders – Johnson in 2010 – went on to claim the championship.

Kenseth said his goal is the same every week – to figure out how to outrun 42 other drivers en route to a victory. So, there’s no reason to believe he and JJ will not continue to race mean-and-clean.

“I think you always race as hard as you can, especially when it comes down to a win, comes down to that last run of the day and comes down, obviously, to a championship,” said Kenseth, who is working with crew chief Jason Ratcliff. “I think you always race as hard as you can, but at the same time you try to be as fair and clean as you can. I think always throughout your career, you make mistakes and learn from them, all those kind of things. But I think if you try to race people the way you want to be raced, it usually works out both ways.

“The goal is to always get your car running good where you can go pass and you can go outrun other guys and not worry about that. People asked me a lot of questions at Martinsville (Speedway last Sunday) about cars being roughed-up and all that stuff and I was like, ‘Man, usually when you see Jimmie, Jeff, Denny (Hamlin) – those guys that win there all the time, their car sitting in Victory Lane hardly ever has a scratch on them. I think your goal is to have your car working better than the next guy so you can just pass them.”

Johnson acknowledged there indeed are similarities to the way he and Kenseth turn left. ”Being around him, off the track as well and with his family, we have a lot in common,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say we are identical. But we do have something very deep down that is very common between the both of us the way we approach things a little more laid back.

“I think the championship battle brings the very best out of people, and he and his people are bringing their best each and every weekend. I feel in order to win the championship you have to be up-front racing for the win. I expect to see the No. 20 there each and every week.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 1 2013
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