Intriguing Duel for the Title

Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth

This momentum-shifting Chase turned again last weekend at Martinsville when Kenseth - whose record there is inferior to Johnson’s - bested Johnson by placing second. (Photo: Getty Images)

While texting pals Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are not as likely to infuse this Chase with the stinging one-liners that Tony Stewart did during his title run two years ago, it doesn’t mean this championship race is without intrigue.

One just has to look deeper.

This momentum-shifting Chase turned again last weekend at Martinsville Speedway when Kenseth - whose record there is inferior to Johnson’s - bested Johnson by placing second.  Kenseth is back atop the points - tied with Johnson - a week after losing that spot at Talladega Superspeedway.  Three races remain as the series heads this weekend to Texas.

With the Sprint Cup Series returning to a 1.5-mile speedway  the focus will be on Kenseth, not Johnson.  Four of Kenseth’s career-high seven victories this season have come on similar tracks.  Johnson, who has won at least one race a year on 1.5-mile tracks since 2003, remains winless at those venues this season.

Carl Edwards lived the peaks and valleys of the Chase two years ago before Stewart beat him for the crown on a tiebreaker.  Edwards knows the challenges the final weeks present.

Edwards says to watch "how much either joy or disappointment each driver and crew and team has in every little aspect of this weekend.  They will be on an emotional roller coaster, confidence roller coaster from first practice, qualifying, race practice one, race practice two, every pit stop.

"The face of the whole championship can change in an instant in these last three races because of how close they are.  I saw it firsthand at Talladega watching Jimmie and Matt jockeying for position those last few laps.  You could see the momentum of the championship change lap after lap."

Johnson has had a rocky relationship with Texas during the Chase.  He took the points lead from Kenseth in 2006 there on the way to winning his first title.  Johnson also grabbed the points lead there from Jeff Gordon in 2007 after a thrilling duel with Kenseth for the win - propelling Johnson to another crown.

But there have been challenges.  Johnson entered the 2009 Texas race with a comfortable lead only to be collected in a crash on the third lap with Sam Hornish Jr.  Johnson recovered to win another title.  Johnson lost the points lead to Denny Hamlin in 2010 at this race made memorable by crew chief Chad Knaus’ decision to replace his pit crew in the middle of the race.  Johnson rallied to win his fifth consecutive title.

In that 2010 race, Hamlin’s team pitted next to Johnson, payback for an earlier ploy in the Chase by Knaus.

Johnson and Kenseth pitted near each other last weekend at Martinsville, but might it be time for one to pick a stall next to the other?

"I think it’s OK to instigate it if you have the personnel that handles pressure really well," said crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who won the 2009 Daytona 500 with Kenseth.

Blickensderfer says if they don’t pick a stall next to each other, see who does.  Will a Gibbs car or another Toyota pit in front of Johnson?  Will a Hendrick car or one with ties to that organization pit in front of Kenseth?  It’s just part of the gamesmanship of the Chase.

What’s for certain is the pressure both teams will face.  Should they falter, it could allow Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch to make this more than a two-man race for the crown.

Marcos Ambrose isn’t sure those other drivers will get the chance.

"When it’s showtime, (Johnson) is the man that stands out," Ambrose said.  "He’s done the most incredible job of any sportsman that I know to be able ... to step up when the time is needed to be the champion.  He's just able to withstand all that pressure year after year after year.

"Then, you look at Matt Kenseth and he changes his circumstance, brand new team, brand new crew chief, brand new manufacturer, brand new engine program and he’s running right there for the championship.  That just shows what an amazing talent Matt Kenseth is."

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