And if numbers mean anything, it will be tough for either co-leader to gain an edge
FORT WORTH, Texas -- The closest Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in history with three races remaining would not appear to be any less dramatic when the checkered flag falls in Sunday's AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
That is if you're a big believer in statistics and history.
Sprint Cup Series championship co-leaders Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson carry similar statistics into the race and their two closest challengers Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick boast heady numbers as well at the challenging 1.5-mile high-banked Texas oval.
Kenseth and Johnson both have a pair of wins and their average finish here is 8.5 and 9.1, respectively. Kenseth has five top-five finishes in the last six Texas races and Johnson has three top-six finishes in that time.
Kenseth finished 12th in the April 500-miler while Johnson is the defending winner of the fall race.
"It's definitely a tense period of time," Johnson said, "Actually it's a lot of fun once I can really slow things down and pay attention to it. Having another to race so hard for it and fight for each and every point as we have is, in most 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."
Not only are the front-runners bunched up in the point standings, but they also will be cozy on Sunday's starting grid.
Johnson's No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet rolls off third, Kenseth's No. 20 Home Depot Toyota starts sixth.
Gordon, who is third in points -- 27 points behind -- will start his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevy eighth. Harvick -- who trails the leaders by 28 points and is the only one of the top four ranked drivers without a win here, will start his No. 29 Budweiser Chevy 19th.
While statistics can certainly be used by teams to fine-tune future performance, they don't serve as a can't-miss determination in the Chase as far as Johnson is concerned. And certainly they haven't in this year's championship run.
Historically, for example, Kenseth hasn’t fared well at the Martinsville, Va., half-miler, but he finished second there last week -- a little too close for comfort for eight-time Martinsville winner Johnson, who crossed the finish line sixth.
All bets are off in the Chase where the contenders have repeatedly raised their game.
"You can't look at past history and say that you can count on a 15th-place average at Martinsville for Matt," Johnson explained. "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."
Gordon is of a similar mindset. He says he doesn't believe in statistics for the long-haul, but thinks most recent results are better predictors, particularly considering the introduction of the new track-record making Gen-6 car this season.
"I base everything off what the team has done in the previous race not previous races. Tires change, cars change and certainly this year a lot has changed. I base it off what I saw in the test.
"Jimmie was strong testing and strong today (in qualifying) so you expect him to be fast and his is and the 20 (Kenseth) is, too. We actually closed the gap on them so I’m happy with that (qualifying).
"As long as statistically you are in, it’s a five- and six-man race. But we have to make up some gap to realistically be in that fight. A lot will clear up when this race is over. Or maybe not."