Who Will Be the 2013 Champion?
After a tightly contested Chase battle that saw Matt Kenseth enter last Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway trailing Jimmie Johnson by just 7 points, no one could have expected the five-time champion would end the day with a 28-point lead.
Kenseth battled an uncooperative car all day and finished 23rd, his worst result since Watkins Glen in mid-August. That, combined with Jimmie Johnson’s third place finish, left the No. 48 team staring down their sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship in the past eight years. If Johnson finishes 23rd or better at Homestead he will clinch a title, leaving him one short of the record seven held by Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
Kenseth won the opening two races in the Chase, including the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, but Johnson has been brilliant throughout the Chase. Johnson owns an average finish of 4.7 throughout the first nine races, which puts him on pace for a record through the 10-race title run.
Fortunately for Kenseth, Homestead hasn’t been kind to Johnson in the past. In fact, Johnson has finished 32nd and 36th the past two trips to South Florida, potentially leaving the door open for Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota to pull off the comeback.
"Even with a nice points lead I'm not going to take any week any differently," said Johnson, who started from the pole position at Phoenix in a race that was won by Kevin Harvick. "There's still a lot of pressure to get the job done, and it's no layup at all."
Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, lamented the team’s performance at Phoenix, knowing it may have cost them a shot at a championship.
“Today it's like everything we touched went the wrong direction for whatever reason," Ratcliff said. Everybody was fighting the same stuff today (with tires and track conditions), so we should have been able to go out there and do a better job executing. For whatever reason, we just missed it."
Kenseth believed the disappointment was a testament to the team’s performance all year, which has been exemplary.
“That's honestly the first day we've had like that all season long and, gosh, that just speaks volumes about my team," he said. "... There's not a car out here I'd rather be driving than this one, so I'm a pretty lucky guy."
Kenseth will need that luck on his side to pull out the upset at Homestead, but after a seven-win season in 2013, it’s almost impossible to count Kenseth out.