A tale of two racers
One driver is cerebral.
One says he isn’t that smart, but he really is.
One driver says he’s a mechanic and the other is a psychologist.
Both drivers are friends, both respect each other and both race each other hard.
But how they approach the final two races of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and the championship that goes with it couldn’t be more different.
And the most fascinating aspect of the Johnson vs. Kenseth title battle might not be what happens on the track, where the two are separated by a mere seven points, but what goes on inside their respective heads.
Johnson is the thinker of the two. Each year during the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he changes his behavior, from his exercise regimen and diet to blocking out as many outside distractions as he can. Johnson spends a lot of time visualize how he will approach a given race.
Kenseth, who grew up racing on the short tracks of the Midwest, has a somewhat less ethereal approach: Kenseth believes that he who has the fastest car wins.
“I think my biggest advantage this year has been that I have a really strong team, a really fast race car when we show up to the race track, we have cars that can compete for wins more often than not,” Kenseth said Friday morning at Phoenix International Raceway, site of Sunday’s AdvoCare 500. “I think no matter what, my mental state is if I have really slow race cars, it's not going to matter what my mental state is and if I have cars that are capable of going to win and going out and able to compete every week, it's easier to be in a better frame of mind and focus on things.”
And therein lies the difference between Kenseth and Johnson.
“I guess I'm more of a mechanical guy than a psychological guy,” said Kenseth. “There's some people that are more psychological, some people are more mechanical. I've always been from the school, if you have the fastest race car, more often than not, you have the chance for the win or the good finish.”
As for Johnson, he admitted he knew almost nothing mechanically about stock cars when he first started racing them.
“I remember being in Milwaukee with Howie Lettow as my crew chief just trying to understand what to do,” Johnson said. I didn’t know what wedge was so he literally took this little plastic table we had and cut one of the legs down and made it shorter and said, this doesn’t have any wedge in it and it’s tipping over. Just had to go through all the basics and teach me the basics. Matt is much stronger … in that area.”
And Johnson allowed as he does like to think things through.
“I agree, I’m probably more on the psychological side,” he said. “Making sure that I’m buttoned up, trying to create a good energy through the team and keep the guys up and things like that.”
Asked if he has any special techniques to prepare himself during the Chase, as Johnson does, Kenseth thought for a second and said, “I guess I don't. I guess I'm not that smart. No, I guess I don't.”
Still, there’s a reason these two guys are the best in the game right now.
“I feel like we are both big picture thinkers and inside the race car and understanding the flow of a race, the flow of the Chase, the flow of a year, there is just a broader vision,” said Johnson. “Being patient in the car at different times, if it’s racing someone in traffic or if mistakes made to not let an issue there destroy your whole race, again more of a big picture thinker and how to work through issues and come out of the race with your best possible finish.”
“They are very similar in how they race,” said Jeff Burton of Johnson and Kenseth. “They are both quietly aggressive. They are both aggressive drivers, but they don’t do it by running into you. They do it by driving into the corner a little deeper than perhaps they should to get that position. They are both clean drivers, both very committed to the sport. They are a lot alike.”