The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race for the championship is a dead heat, as Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are tied at the top with three races to go, as the circuit prepares for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (3 PM ET, ESPN).
Kenseth and Johnson are now the only realistic contenders to win the Chase For The Cup. In reality, this has been the case for several weeks, but TheSportsNotebook has done its best to find scenarios for other challengers to get in the mix. The only three on the board at this point would be Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who range from 27-36 points off the pace.
What would it take for any of these three to challenge Kenseth-JJ hegemony? “Kenseth and JJ would have to get into a wreck with each other,” said TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR junkie, my brother Bill. “They would have to finish 35th or worse.” If that happens, Bill said, high finishes by any of the challenging trio would give them a real shot. But it’s important to emphasize that both of the leaders would have to wreck one time, and that’s asking a lot.
Therefore, let’s focus strictly on Kenseth and Johnson with a look at how they have fared in the last seven races (the ones that constitute the postseason), and how they have fared at Texas Motor Speedway in recent years.
Recent Form: Kenseth is known for consistency, but not necessarily winning, but this year has been a departure from the norm, and the seven Chase races fit the pattern. He won the first two, but has also been out of the Top 10 twice, and Johnson has never finished as low as Kenseth’s worst Chase showing, which is 20th.
Johnson has one won Chase race, finished as low as 13th one time, but been in the top six in the other five races. His average finish is 5.4, while the Kenseth average is 6.1. The difference is not huge, but in a battle that’s tied after 33 races, even the slightest edges stand out.
At Texas: There are two races at this venue each year. Back in April, Johnson finished sixth, while Kenseth ended up twelfth. If we go back through 2008, we see that Kenseth has one once (the spring race in 2011), as has Johnson (the late race in 2012).
Kenseth has been very consistent here, only finishing outside the Top 10 twice in eleven races. Johnson has had non-Top 10 finishes three times, but more important is that one of those races was a 38th-place disaster in the late race of 2009–exactly the kind of wipeout Bill said the other contenders need.
The Rest Of The Field: Of course Kenseth and JJ won’t be driving by themselves, and there’s still a lot of money at stake, both in terms of purse and for gamblers at the betting window based strictly on what happens Sunday. Other winners at Texas since 2008 include Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Gordon and Kurt Busch. In 2010, Denny Hamlin swept both races and Carl Edwards turned the same trick in 2008.
Betting Odds: Johnson is the 7-2 favorite on Sunday, with Kenseth coming in at 4-1. Kyle Busch at 5-1, and Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, both at 8-1, are priced strong enough to be considered co-favorites.
Of the other recent winners, Stewart is out with a broken leg, while Biffle, Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Edwards are all 20-1 bets.