For Kenseth, Homestead may be win or bust
November 06, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
It seems like so little, and so much all at the same time. The seven-point margin separating championship leaders Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth is small enough that one mistake -- a dropped lug nut, a speeding penalty, getting trapped on pit road by a caution -- can alter the balance of power in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. It’s also large enough that should both drivers run error-free in the final two races like they have so much of this season, the difference is going to be very difficult to make up.
So difficult, that Kenseth already knows what it may take.
"If you win both of the last two races … the math works out to where you still win it, so it's still in our hands," he said after Johnson's victory this past Sunday at Texas. Which means that as small as the margin is, deep down the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is probably already aware of what he has to do to win this championship. He's going to have to win one or both of these final two races, which may very well mean a winner-take-all scenario next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Of course, it shaped up that way a season ago as well, given that Johnson held the same lead over Brad Keselowski that he holds now over Kenseth. Johnson was coming off another victory at Texas -- and then went out and suffered not just one, but two catastrophic failures of the kind the No. 48 team just does not have in the Chase. The last time Johnson had experienced a back-to-back breakdowns in the playoff? That would be when he blew an engine at Talladega, and then crashed at Kansas, in the early weeks of the inaugural Chase in 2004.
So it may not be wise to pin hopes on another run of Johnson misfortune to mirror the cut tire at Phoenix and rear-end gear failure at Homestead that effectively took the No. 48 car out of the running a season ago. If anything, the safest assumption here is to postulate that both drivers run cleanly the rest of the way, hardly a stretch given that they’ve done exactly that since the Chase began. Can anything happen? Of course. But you better believe both sides are operating under the belief that the other guy is going to have to be beaten, and not simply taken advantage of.
For Kenseth, that narrows the focus considerably. Phoenix International Raceway, which this weekend hosts yet another pivotal, penultimate Chase race, has historically been one of Johnson's best tracks -- he has four wins and an average finish of sixth on a one-mile layout that ranks high in almost all his statistical categories. The Southern California native has owned the place, effectively locking up his first four titles there, and making a save in the desert that paved the way for his fifth. Johnson's success has become as much a part of the Phoenix landscape as the saguaro cactus lining the hillsides outside the doglegged track.
Even so, Martinsville reminded everyone that Kenseth is a dangerous driver to underestimate. If anything, his Chase run has been defined by standout performances on tracks that rank far from his personal best -- like New Hampshire, where he scored his first victory, and Martinsville, where he was runner-up for the first time in over a decade. His Joe Gibbs Racing cars have clearly proven more adaptable than those he piloted at Roush Fenway Racing, and Kenseth is clearly more comfortable in them, opening doors of opportunity that previously might have been nailed shut.
In that light, then, would we really be surprised if Kenseth prevailed at Phoenix, a track where he hasn't won since 2002, and has finished in the top five just once in his last five outings? Absolutely not. And yet, when you take in the full scope of this championship race with only two races remaining, a likely path emerges. Even if Kenseth outpoints Johnson at Phoenix as he did at Martinsville, it's still very likely that the No. 48 car won't be far behind. It's still very likely that the margin will be as close leaving the Valley of the Sun as it was coming in.
And it's very likely that to win this championship, Matt Kenseth is going to have to win the finale at Homestead.
From a points perspective -- again, barring some type of catastrophic failure on either side, which would alter the picture considerably -- there seems no other way. Either Kenseth is going to head to South Florida slightly behind, in which case he's going to absolutely need the three bonus points to help make up the difference. Or he'll be tied with or slightly ahead of Johnson, in which case he can't leave anything to chance. The tiebreaker scenarios promise to keep us guessing until the final lap, given that Kenseth currently leads the first one (victories) seven to six, and Johnson the second (runner-up finishes) two to one, and both of those could flip over the final two weeks.
Which boils it all down to win or else, the same scenario Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards faced two seasons ago when they left Phoenix three points apart and proceeded to deliver the most riveting finale in NASCAR history. From Kenseth's perspective, there are probably few places better suited to a last stand -- no organization has had a more solid grip on Homestead than Roush, Kenseth's home the previous dozen years, and surely some of that knowledge will filter down to the No. 20 team. And Homestead is also one of five current tracks where Johnson has never won.
Interestingly enough, though, Johnson said Tuesday during a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame that his bigger concern of the two final tracks was Phoenix, given the tire issue a year ago. A recent test at Homestead, he added, went as well as a test at Texas -- and we all know what happened there. "Setups were in the same ballpark," Johnson said. "So I feel like we're heading the right way with things."
Johnson does have a pair of runner-up finishes at Homestead, recorded in the heat of championship races in 2004 and 2010. Of course, that second-place result in '04 wasn't enough to keep Kurt Busch from winning the title. Just as Edwards' second-place run in 2011 wasn't enough to prevent Stewart from claiming the crown. Just as second place at Homestead might not be good enough for Kenseth this time around. Should the margin separating the two contenders next weekend remain close to what it is now, there will be only place where Kenseth can assure he has control of this championship race -- Victory Lane.