Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - With the 10-race Chase for the Sprint
Cup now at its halfway point, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are running
side-by-side for the championship points lead.
Kenseth began the Chase three points ahead of Johnson. Their separation is now
After winning the first two Chase races (Chicagoland and New Hampshire),
Kenseth held a 14-point lead over Kyle Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate,
and an 18-point advantage over Johnson. But Johnson won at Dover and trimmed
Kenseth's lead to eight.
Earlier this month, Johnson's sixth-place run coupled with an 11th-place
finish for Kenseth at Kansas put Johnson back to where he started the Chase,
three points behind. Kenseth finished third and Johnson fourth this past
Saturday at Charlotte.
The Chase moves on to Talladega, which is considered the "wild card" race in
the playoffs. The unpredictable can happen at Talladega, including the big
wreck or wrecks. One thing is for sure, Kenseth, Johnson and the other Chase
drivers will be able to breathe a little easier once Sunday's race there is
"We made it through the first half good and maintained a very small lead, so
that's better than being behind," Kenseth said. "We'll go to Talladega and
race hard. Hopefully, our car will have some speed there, and we'll be able to
hang up front somewhere."
Johnson won a record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006-10
but has come up short of capturing his sixth title the past two years.
Last season, Brad Keselowski and Johnson were the only drivers who led in the
point standings during the Chase. Johnson took over the top spot after winning
at Texas but took a big hit in points the following week at Phoenix, where he
finished 32nd after being involved in a late-race accident. He placed 36th in
the season finale at Homestead and ended the year third in the rankings.
Keselowski went on to claim the championship.
Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are very optimistic about
winning a sixth championship this year.
"I do feel very good about our chances," Johnson said. "Post-Talladega,
depending on how things play out there, we'll see where we stand. But the only
thing I can do right now is look back on the races we've had and think what
points we've left on the table. And there really aren't many that we've left
behind. We've been very consistent, and we've been competitive. We've won a
race. I feel good with that. I know if we keep this pace up, we'll definitely
be a contender come Homestead."
Prior to the start of the Chase, Johnson had been in the biggest slump of his
Cup career. He had finished 28th or worse in the final four races of the
regular season. Johnson held a 75-point lead after the Aug. 18 event at
Michigan, but his advantage evaporated quickly, as he concluded the regular
season one point behind Carl Edwards, who won at Richmond.
"I honestly and genuinely felt like we had a great chance to win the
championship when all that was going on," Johnson said. "When you have a new
stat of your four or five worst races ever in the history of a team, it's not
anything to be proud of. There was a bit of, I don't know exactly what to call
it, stress or frustration, that went with that. But we genuinely knew that we
would be fine once the Chase started and got back to our tracks, good tracks,
and had a little luck turn around for us."
In last year's Chase race at Talladega, Johnson was one of those caught up in
a 25-car accident that occurred on the final lap. Johnson came to Talladega
five points behind Keselowski, but after finishing 17th there, he fell 14
points out of the lead. Kenseth, who was in his final year with Roush Fenway
Racing, won the race.
Kenseth has had a remarkable first season with JGR. He leads the series with
seven wins this season. Kenseth is attempting to win his second Cup title. His
first championship came in 2003, the year before NASCAR instituted a playoff
format for its top series.
"I feel like you've got to be able to run in the top five every week to have a
shot at this deal," Kenseth said. "I know you're not going to finish there
every week, but I think you have to be good enough to finish there every week
and not make mistakes and, hopefully, get good finishes."
While Kenseth and Johnson are the front-runners, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and
Busch are not too far behind in the Chase battle. Harvick, who won at Kansas,
is 29 points behind. Gordon trails by 36 points, and Busch is 37 out of the
After Talladega, the series will head to Martinsville, which is the only
short-track race in the Chase. Two 1.5-mile tracks (Texas and Homestead) and a
1-mile track (Phoenix) follow Martinsville.
The Chase began amid controversy, as NASCAR had severely penalized Michael
Waltrip Racing for manipulating the outcome of the Sept. 7 race at Richmond,
in an attempt to get Martin Truex Jr. into the playoffs. NASCAR also took
action against Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports in their efforts to
help Joey Logano make it into the Chase.
In a season filled with one major story line after another, who knows what
might happen in the Chase during these next five weeks.
"I'm sure there will be something to talk about once we get to Homestead,"
The Sports Network