Johnson holds four-point edge on Kenseth
Johnson, who avidly pursues distance running as a component of his extreme fitness regimen, had completed a 15-mile run two weeks ago. Last week, the five-time series champion upped the distance to 17 miles. Thursday, a day before arriving at Martinsville Speedway, Johnson -- with some prompting from his running coach near the end -- went 20 miles as he sharpens his focus on the No. 20, Kenseth's car number.
"That kind of planted the seed in my mind and helped me run strong at the end," Johnson said.
Running strong over the final four races of the season, starting with Sunday's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 Powered by Kroger (1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), is the goal of both drivers, each seeking to one-up the other while keeping the lurking competition -- namely heavyweights Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon -- at bay.
The seeming momentum shift of last weekend's race at Talladega Superspeedway set the tone for the opening day of on-track activity at Martinsville, the series' shortest and oldest track. Kenseth entered Talladega with a four-point lead and left it with a four-point deficit, heading to what has historically not been his strongest venue.
To drive home the contrast, Johnson possesses eight of Martinsville's historic grandfather clock trophies to Kenseth's zero. It's what led Kenseth to jokingly text Johnson in the days leading up to the only short-track race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason that "he would appreciate (Johnson) refraining from asking too much advice or pointers about this weekend at Martinsville."
The banter went on from there, Johnson said, all in good-natured fun. But he also shrugged off Kenseth's heaping of praise on his Martinsville chances.
"I mean it’s flattering, I appreciate it, but there are four or five guys that really stand a chance each time we come here," Johnson said "I think the No. 24, No. 29 and the No. 18 (Gordon, Harvick and Busch) have been knocking on the door. Matt (Kenseth) ran in the top-five, even led laps here in the spring. We have had a good run over the years. I understand where that comes from based on past history, but again it doesn’t guarantee anything for this weekend. At most it’s flattering, but we’ve got to go out there and get to work."
Kenseth's 96 laps led here in the spring were more that he had led total (73) in his previous 26 starts at Martinsville combined. While chasing down Johnson and regaining the points lead is the end goal of the weekend and the last four races, he insists he won't scoreboard-watch come Sunday.
"Not at all. It doesn't really matter or change what you're doing," Kenseth said. "I've never wanted to, no matter where we are in points or what's going on really, where anybody else is. The field is so competitive that I think you approach every week trying to win and if you win then you know everybody is behind you so I think you go out and try to qualify the best you can. Hopefully, lead some laps and be in position to try to call the race to win and try to drive it to win and try to have winning pit stops.
"I think you go out and race as hard as you can, finish as high as you can and after it's all over I guess you look at it and see where you are. You can't control what anybody else does or how anybody else runs or how anybody else finishes. All you can do is control your own car and team and I think you just try to focus on that."
While Kenseth zeroes in on what would be a second Sprint Cup Series championship, it's Johnson who is targeting his sixth. And while his most recent training run might suggest that one driver has his full attention, he's not discounting other potential title contenders waiting to pounce on opportunities.
"I’m not going to put my guard down here even though it is one of our better tracks," Johnson said of Kenseth. "I look forward to a battle all the way to the last lap at Homestead with him. If we slip at all, the No. 29 (Harvick) and the No. 24 (Gordon) and the No. 18 (Busch) have shown they are not going away. We need to certainly worry about the No. 20, but also there are four or five cars we have to really pay attention to here. If Matt and I slip, those guys are right back in it."