NASCAR Chase final four: Jimmie Johnson vs. Matt Kenseth
They both were so relaxed, hanging outside of their motorcoaches last Friday afternoon in the Talladega Superspeedway infield. Standing in the bright Alabama sunshine, Jimmie Johnson joked about the art of golf cart surfing while Matt Kenseth spent time with his wife and daughters in a makeshift pumpkin patch outside of his front door. Yes, if NASCAR's top two drivers of 2013 were feeling the pressure of the Chase, neither betrayed it.
This has been one of their keys this season: No matter how stressful the situation -- either on or off the track-- Johnson and Kenseth simply haven't gotten rattled and have been able to maintain their equilibrium. And now, with four races left in the season, the championship race has essentially been distilled into a battle between these two drivers.
Johnson, the five-time champion, currently holds a four-point advantage over Kenseth, the 2003 Cup winner. The next closest driver, Kevin Harvick, trails Johnson by 26 points, which is the equivalent of 26 positions on the track, which is the equivalent of a country mile in NASCAR.
So who will be your 2013 champion? Here's a breakdown of how Johnson and Kenseth match up against each other on the final four tracks on the schedule.
If there's one track where Johnson has a significant advantage, it's Martinsville. The shortest venue on the circuit, the .526-mile oval in the shape of paperclip requires the drivers to skillfully work their brakes upon entering Turns One and Three. And no one has been better at this in the last decade than Johnson.
In his last 18 starts there, Johnson has reached Victory Lane eight times -- and he's won the last two races at Martinsville in dominating fashion, leading a total of 539 laps (out of 1,000). The goal for Kenseth, who has never won at Martinsville in 27 starts, is to simply stay close to Johnson on Sunday. It won't be easy. Kenseth hasn't finished in the top 10 there in his last two starts.
No team has been better at 1.5-mile tracks this season than Joe Gibbs Racing, which has won seven of the nine races at these intermediate-length venues. Kenseth's teammate, Kyle Busch, took the checkers at Texas in April. Kenseth has been the dominant driver in the Chase at 1.5-milers. He won at Chicago in the playoff opener and then finished third at Charlotte two weeks ago. Johnson has been a tick slower than Kenseth on the intermediates in the Chase; Johnson was fifth at Chicago and fifth at Charlotte.
Based on his overall performance on these types of tracks this year, Kenseth should be the driver to beat in the Lone Star State.
In his championship seasons, this is where Johnson has typically buried his competition. Between 2006 and '10 -- the five straight years he won the title -- his average finish in the fall race at Phoenix was an incredible 2.0. So expect Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus to very, very good at the one-mile oval in the desert.
Kenseth will be an underdog here. He hasn't finished in the top-five at Phoenix since 2007. But if he can keep Johnson within sight, he can still win the championship because of where the final race of the season will take place.
The only tracks in the Chase where Johnson has never won are Chicago and Homestead. But like many statistics in racing, this is deceiving. Because Johnson has had significant leads heading into Homestead in the majority of his title years, he's rarely had to charge hard for the checkered flag in the final race of the season. He and Knaus have been justifiably conservative here in years past, so it's difficult to gauge the No. 48 team's performance at this 1.5-mile oval with multi-tiered banking.
But what we do know this: Kenseth will be extremely quick on Nov. 17. He's led laps at Homestead in six of the last seven races and he won there in 2007.
So who will drive away from Homestead with the title? I think the two key races are Martinsville and Phoenix. If Kenseth can stay glued to Johnson's bumper in both events, Kenseth will be the 2013 champ. If he can't, then Johnson will be hoisting the Cup on Nov. 17.
My pick: Johnson, the soon-to-be Mr. Six-Time