Johnson, Kenseth duel heats up in the desert

By Tom Jensen

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the NASCAR Sprint Cup stretch run.

With two races left in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and just seven points separating leader Jimmie Johnson from second-place Matt Kenseth, the championship could well come down to mistakes. Specifically, who makes a mistake and who doesn’t, or makes the worst mistake.

In 2010, Denny Hamlin came into the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway with what seemed like a comfortable points lead over Johnson. But two critical gaffes — having to make an extra pit stop for fuel at Phoenix, and early-race contact at Homestead-Miami Speedway — cost Hamlin the title.

Last year, the normally bulletproof No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team lost the Chase in the final two races, just as Hamlin did in ’10. Johnson had a seven-point lead over Brad Keselowski — same as he has over Kenseth now — but cut a tire in Phoenix and went into the wall and then had a rear-gear failure at Homestead. Two mistakes, a blown championship opportunity.

And, chances are, there could be at least one more to come in the final two races for one of the teams.

For his part, Kenseth believes his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has the pure speed to outrun Johnson, even if neither man makes a mistake.

“I’m still confident,” Kenseth said after last Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. “I wish I was seven points ahead, but at the end of the day it’s in our hands. 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. I have I think the greatest race team out there and we’re going to go there (Phoenix and Homestead), work as hard as we can and try to get the best finishes we can and see where it ends up.”

Johnson, as he is wont to do this time of year, is trying to keep all distractions away.

“I’m not counting on anything,” the five-time champion said. “And I have to go to Phoenix and race, same as Homestead. It does simplify things a little bit. I’m not going to get too excited about things during the course of the week. I’m going to work real hard and train my butt off. Stay in this little world that I’ve been living in for the last five or six months, but more so the last eight weeks, and show up ready to go these next two weeks.”

Rick Hendrick, Johnson’s team owner, said the two drivers are on virtually equal terms now.

“Everywhere we go, we ride together,” Hendrick said of Johnson and Kenseth. “We qualify close together. We race close together. … I don’t know how it could get any harder than it is right now.”

The numbers support that — Johnson and Kenseth each have two race victories in the Chase, with Johnson’s average Chase finish of 4.875 and Kenseth’s 6.125 being right there with each other.

Hendrick thinks the two drivers will carry the fight to the bitter end.

“I think it’s going to be the last lap at Homestead, unless one of them has a major failure early in Phoenix, and then the other guy’s just got to finish in the top 10,” said Hendrick. “But I don’t see that happening. I think this is just going to be a dogfight there. The teams are that close.”