Johnson, Kenseth battle promises intense finale
November 04, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Seven points separate veterans with championship in balance
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Matt Kenseth was all smiles Sunday evening when he climbed out of his No. 20 Home Depot Toyota on Texas Motor Speedway's pit road despite losing seven points in the NASCAR championship to Jimmie Johnson, who was celebrating in Victory Lane 30 yards away.
Johnson turned in a dominating performance on the track's high-banked oval, leading 255 of the 334 laps to win his second straight AAA Texas 500, while Kenseth rallied to a fourth-place finish, overcoming a mid-race pit road speeding penalty.
Seven points between them, with two races remaining to settle the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, keeps everything really, really interesting as far as these guys are concerned.
"I'm still confident; I wish I was seven points ahead, but still, at the end of the day, it's in our hands," Kenseth said. "If you win both of the last two races, the math works out where we still win it (all)."
"I think I've got the greatest race team out there and we're going to go there and work as hard as we can and see where it ends up.
"We're right in it. As good as my team is, if we can hit everything right, we can have days like he (Johnson) had today," Kenseth continued. "We've had them this year. I still feel good. I'm confident and looking forward to getting to Phoenix."
And even after hoisting the weekend's trophy, Johnson wasn't ready to assume anything. He left Texas seven points up on Brad Keselowski last year and lost the championship.
"I hope history doesn't repeat itself," said a smiling Johnson, whose crew chief Chad Knaus characterized Kenseth as a "more formidable" opponent.
"That (last season) is the perfect example of this thing isn't over until it's over. Last year we had eight great races and two bad ones and didn't get the championship. Very important to finish strong. There are two very important races left."
"I have been watching a lot of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting lately, and you'll fall into a rhythm and think that somebody has got the fight won, and it doesn't end that way," Johnson cautioned. "That's how this is going to be. Matt didn't have maybe the best day and still finished fourth. This thing is going to go to the last lap at Homestead, and it is going to come down to mistakes.
"I'm very excited about our performance and what we did here. We'll enjoy this, but there is still two weeks of very hard racing ahead of us."
While the title drama and suspense remains for the Johnson and Kenseth duel, the contenders have separated themselves from the rest of the field.
And so it appears the title will most likely be settled between Johnson and Kenseth in what should be a compelling story line of high competition among former series champions. In the eight weeks of Chase competition, they have kept each other honest and been around one another on the starting grid as well as in the results. Every day has seemed a good day for these two, each of whom has stepped up his game and forced the other to, as well.
"Through all the years I've raced against them, I've never seen them bad anywhere,’" Kenseth said of the five-time champ's No. 48 team. "You know they are going to have their A-game every week, and I think we have pretty much every week, too.
"We weren’t going to beat them on speed tonight no matter what. We were just a little off and they were just extremely on. If we had hit all our adjustments perfect tonight and I would have done a better job we might have run second. That's still a good job, though."
And while the number of contenders may be shrinking, the intensity of the competition has not. Anyone involved with either Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champ, or Johnson, who won a historic five straight titles from 2006-2010, would expect it to be this way.
"I don't know how it could get any harder than it is right now," Johnson's team owner Rick Hendrick joked after the race. "It's nerves and it's not going to end. I think it's going to be the last lap at Homestead. This is just going to be a dogfight there. The teams are that close."