How Matt Kenseth Must Adjust Now That He's Jimmie Johnson's Sole Challenger

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How Matt Kenseth Must Adjust Now That He's Jimmie Johnson's Sole Challenger
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

In almost a NASCAR version of the TV show SurvivorMatt Kenseth, on Sunday, became the last driver standing in Jimmie Johnson's way to a sixth Sprint Cup championship.

Johnson and Kenseth came into Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway tied for the Sprint Cup points lead. Three other drivers—Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch—were all within striking distance if something happened to the two guys on top.

But after Sunday's race, with Harvick now in third place (40 points back), the younger Busch brother in fourth (52 back), fifth-ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr. (62 back) and Gordon having dropped an almost unconscionable 42 points to fall to sixth, 69 points back, it's pretty clear it's Johnson and Kenseth only from here on out in the season's two remaining races.

As the series moves on to Phoenix this coming Sunday, Johnson holds a seven-point lead over Kenseth.

But that's not all Johnson holds.

Kenseth had a slight edge over Johnson career-wise at Texas, but when it comes to Phoenix and Homestead, Johnson's overall record at both remaining venues far exceeds Kenseth's career marks at each.

In particular, at Phoenix International Raceway, Johnson has four wins, 13 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes in 20 starts.

Kenseth's record at PIR is markedly stark in comparison: 22 starts, just one win, five top-five and only nine top-10 finishes.

At Homestead, Kenseth has an edge over Johnson in wins (1-0, with Homestead being one of only five tracks Johnson has yet to win on in the Cup circuit).

But extrapolate that out further and Johnson still holds an edge over Kenseth at the host track for the season finale:

Johnson: 12 starts, 0 wins, four top-five and seven top-10 finishes

Kenseth: 13 starts, 1 win, three top-five and five top-10 finishes

Ergo, Johnson holds not only that seven-point edge over Kenseth, he pretty clearly also holds favorite status going forward in the last two races.

Making things even harder on Kenseth is he's left to his own devices to beat Johnson single-handedly now. We're not saying it can't be done, but it will certainly be an uphill battle, even if you don't consider Johnson's obvious statistical advantage at both PIR and Homestead.

Now that he's left as Jimmie Johnson's lone challenger in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, can Matt Kenseth still win this season's championship?

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Following Texas, Kenseth lost the one thing he could count on in the Chase prior to Sunday's race: other drivers who still had a chance at the title and, in effect, provided a distraction to Johnson that could make him occasionally forget about Kenseth.

In a sense, having Gordon, Harvick and Kyle Busch still in the running offered Kenseth brothers in arms against Johnson.

After Sunday, though, that's all gone. Kenseth is on his own, essentially the last one on the Chase island left to do battle with Johnson.

And given that Johnson has been down this road so many times—and ended up champion five times—Kenseth is going to have to dig deep in his bag of tricks if he's to have any shot at leaving Homestead with the championship trophy.

Before Sunday's race, defending Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski—who failed to make the Chase this season—predicted Kenseth would be the eventual champion.

So how does Kenseth live up to Keselowski's prediction? How does he keep Johnson from making it six championships in eight seasons?

Two things stand out:

First, Kenseth just needs to stay near Johnson at Phoenix. Sure, Kenseth's eighth win of the season would be a big help, but as long as he leaves Phoenix within 10 points of Johnson, we'll have a great battle heading into Homestead.

And that leads us to the second key and, perhaps, the most significant thing that Kenseth has to keep in mind.

In almost every one of his five prior championships, Johnson wasn't pushed hard at Homestead by his closest rivals. All he had to do was finish decently, and he was able to clinch the title each time.

I don't want to say Johnson coasted in those five races at Homestead, but he broke nary a sweat in any of them.

One thing Johnson has never been faced with at Homestead is a must-win situation—and that's where Kenseth could have the last ace in the deck when NASCAR gets to South Florida in two weeks.

In the season finale at Homestead in his five championship seasons, Johnson finished ninth in the 2006 race, seventh in 2007, 15th (he was that far ahead going into Homestead) in 2008 and fifth in 2009. And even though he didn't have to push it in 2010, Johnson came as close as he ever has to winning a race there, finishing second en route to his record fifth consecutive title.

And even with finishing second, he still beat points runner-up Denny Hamlin by a commanding 39 points. It's almost as if Johnson wanted to put an exclamation mark on No. 5 with his second-place finish.

So if Kenseth is to rally and grab the championship out of Johnson's grasp in the last two races, it's at Homestead where it needs to happen.

One other thing to think about: Johnson had a chance at the championship last season. He fell behind early at Phoenix, pushed too hard and ultimately wound up wrecking but was still within reach of Keselowski and the title heading into Homestead.

What happened?

Johnson pushed his car to—and then past—its limits, only to break a rear gear, ending his hopes and being forced to settle for a third-place finish in the final standings, rather than title No. 6.

If Kenseth can force Johnson to put the pressure on himself, like at the end of last season, rather than it coming from Kenseth, there's going to be a lot of cheering up in Kenseth's home state of Wisconsin.

And if that happens, it'll be the second straight season that title No. 6 (and now potentially No. 7) has slipped through Johnson's former ironclad grasp.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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