So far, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson have waged an epic fight for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. And after two days of practice and qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway, it looks like the two will be neck and neck again on Sunday.
In fact, it would surprise no one if the two protagonists took the title battle all the way to the last lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway, just as Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards did two years ago.
Saturday at TMS, NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Kenseth showed the way in the final Happy Hour practice for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, tying Brad Keselowski for the fastest speed in the session.
Kenseth and Keselowski both ran best laps of 189.434 miles per hour to lead the field. Paul Menard was third ahead of Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
Meanwhile, Johnson, who is tied with Kenseth in points but behind in the standings due to a tiebreaker for most race victories, wrestled with minor issues in the 50-minute final practice.
Johnson attempted to go out at the start of Happy Hour but had a tire rub on the left rear of his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Johnson then hit the track and ran 19 laps before pitting with complaints about his throttle pedal. Finally, with about 15 minutes left, Johnson took to the 1.5-mile circuit again, ending the session 16th.
In consecutive 10- and 15-lap runs, Johnson and Kenseth were much more evenly matched, with Kenseth fastest in both instances, Keselowski second and Johnson third both times.
And in the morning practice that preceded Happy Hour, Johnson was sixth overall to Kenseth’s 15th, and marginally faster in 10-lap consecutive average speed, as well.
Johnson will start Sunday’s race third, three positions ahead of Kenseth. It just doesn’t get much more evenly matched.
Both men expect the close racing to continue.
“I think the championship battle brings the very best out of people, and he and his people are bringing their best each and every weekend,” Johnson said of Kenseth. “I feel in order to win the championship you have to be up front racing for the win. I expect to see the No. 20 (Kenseth) there each and every week.”
“They always say, ‘If you want to be the man, you have to beat the man,’ and he’s always definitely been the man,” Kenseth countered of Johnson. “Really just trying to concentrate on that and trying to figure out how to make our car fast enough to go out and be able to compete with not only him, but the rest of the field each and every week. It’s a competitive group.”
As far as the psychological warfare that comes with racing for a championship, Kenseth said he’s not really into that sort of thing.
“I’m not smart enough to be in the head games and insults and some of the stuff we’ve seen happen over the last few years,” Kenseth said. “I’m just not — my brain is over capacity already with trying to figure out how to make my race car fast enough to be the best.”