Matt Kenseth strode into Thursday’s NASCAR championship contenders press conference at Homestead-Miami Speedway loose and relaxed, as if he were ahead of Jimmie Johnson by 28 points instead of the other way around.
On the stage of the Homestead Media Center, Kenseth, Johnson and third-place Kevin Harvick whispered one-liners with each other and occasionally cracked wise, a sharp contrast to the tense atmosphere of the championship pressers of the last three years.
Win, lose or draw on Sunday, Kenseth is in a good space as he wraps up his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing. It will take an extraordinary set of circumstances for him to win his second Cup championship this year, but as he noted during one-on-one interviews after the event, he’s in the title hunt in the last race of the season for the first time since 2006. And that’s a very good thing.
"I don’t have any pain," Kenseth said. "I haven’t been sitting in one of these since ’06, I don’t think. I haven’t had a mathematical chance to win the championship going into the last race in seven years. Yeah, we want to win it. You donât get a lot of opportunities to win these things, so when you get one, you want to take advantage of that and you want it win it."
By any standard, Kenseth has had a spectacular NASCAR Sprint Cup Series campaign in 2013. On Sunday, he’ll find out if that campaign will be a historic one as well.
"We’ve had a just incredible season, we’ve won seven races, we’ve led a bunch of laps," said Kenseth. "We’re here with a mathematical shot. … Overall, it’s been a great season. The numbers kind of speak for themselves."
But to defeat Johnson and claim his second Sprint Cup title, Kenseth will need to be both lucky and good.
While 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead are right in Kenseth’s wheelhouse — five of his victories this year are on similarly sized tracks — even if he wins on Sunday, Johnson will have to have his worst race of the Chase to open the door for Kenseth. If Kenseth wins on Sunday and leads the most laps, Johnson still takes the title by finishing 23rd without leading a lap, or 24th by leading a lap.
Right now, Johnson leads Kenseth by 28 points. And only twice this season in 35 races has Kenseth made up that many points on Johnson in a single race. Then again, in 12 career Homestead starts, Johnson has finished 25th or worse here four times.
Kenseth isn’t conceding anything to Johnson at this point.
I don’t have any pain.
"You just don’t know what’s going to happen out there," he said. "We’re going to go with the idea of trying to win the race. We’ll run the best we can and try to be there if something does happen (to Johnson)."
And Kenseth knows he’s going to need Johnson to have a problem to make it work.
"Obviously, we’re not going to make up the deficit on performance," said Kenseth. "I think Jimmie could run 28th through the grass or with three wheels on. He’s going to have to have a mechanical problem or crash to make something happen. We’ll have to be up in the top five to hold on to second or to overtake Jimmie if he has a problem."
Regardless of the outcome, Kenseth said he was glad he made the jump to JGR this year.
"It’s just been a great change on a professional level and on a personal level," Kenseth said. "It’s been good for me. It’s been really good for my confidence, my self-esteem. It’s just been a good change."