FORT WORTH, Texas — Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are neck and neck in their battle for the Sprint Cup Series championship with just three races to go.
Kenseth’s second-place run compared to a fifth-place finish for Johnson this past weekend at Martinsville Speedway allowed Kenseth to move into a points tie with Johnson. Both drivers have 2,294 points apiece heading into Sunday’s 500-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Despite having the same amount of points, Kenseth is credited with the lead in the point standings by virtue of his series-leading seven wins this season. Johnson has five victories.
This is the first time in series history that two drivers are tied for the points lead with three races remaining.
In 1996, Jeff Gordon had only a one- point advantage over Terry Labonte at this point of the season.
That was during NASCAR’s previous point system (1975-2010). For the start of the 2011 season, NASCAR implemented a one-point per position (43-1) system.
The margin between the first and second-place drivers entering the eighth round in the Chase at Texas has been quite close since the current points format was put in place.
Two years ago, Carl Edwards held an eight-point lead over Tony Stewart. Both drivers ended the ‘11 season in a tie, but Stewart claimed the championship with five wins to Edwards’ one.
Last year, Johnson came to Texas with just a two-point margin over Brad Keselowski. Johnson won at Texas, but finished 32nd at Phoenix and then 36th at Homestead. Keselowski went on to capture his first series title.
Phoenix, a one-mile track, is scheduled for Nov. 10, and Homestead, a mile and a half, is slated for Nov. 17.
“A lot can happen in those races,” Johnson said. “I think we’re going to finish close to each other each week, and it’s going to be a mistake, in my opinion, that will separate things at the end of the year. We’ve just got to be clean and not make any mistakes.”
Kenseth’s average finish at Texas is 8.5, while Johnson is close behind at 9.1.
Kenseth also has led a total of 772 laps in 22 starts at this 1.5-mile racetrack compared to 443 laps in 20 races here for Johnson.
When the series most recently competed at Texas in April, Johnson finished sixth and Kenseth placed 12th.
“I feel like we can race anybody at these next three tracks,” Kenseth said. “I feel good about that. Anything can happen, but man, we’re in it, and we’re going to three really good tracks, so hopefully we can perform here the next three weeks and have a race.”
Four of Kenseth’s seven wins this year have come at 1.5-mile tracks (Las Vegas, Kansas, Kentucky and Chicagoland).
Kenseth and Johnson have two wins each at Texas. Johnson’s victories came in the Chase races here (2007 and last year). Kenseth won the spring events at this track in 2002 and ‘11.
In the ‘07 fall race at Texas, Johnson and Kenseth traded the lead three times during the final seven laps. Johnson ended up beating Kenseth to the finish line by just under a second.
“We put on a heck of a show,” Johnson recalled. “I was inside of him for many laps. Both of us were sideways and just driving the wheels off the cars. From my standpoint, I think it was an amazing race. I’m sure Matt would agree on most levels, but the results I think he would want differently.”
Last week, 10 of the 13 Chase drivers, including Kenseth and Johnson, tested at Texas, in preparation for this weekend’s race.
Kyle Busch, who won the spring event here, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, who has the most victories at this track with three, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne tested as well.
“Expect the cars that were there to lead the way on the practice sheets and be toward the top of the qualifying order when all that comes down,” Johnson said. “That’s all very important stuff but, what I’m really excited about after the test session is how much the line has moved around on the racetrack. If we have sunny conditions for the race, we’ll have a very, very exciting race.”
Kenseth’s test here did not go as well as planned.
His session was cut short early when he suffered a blown right-front tire and made contact with the wall, causing significant damage to his car.
It was not the same car that his Joe Gibbs Racing team plans to use for this race.
“When you run nine laps and one (tire) blows apart for some reason, that’s always a cause for concern for sure,” Kenseth said.
After scoring his first victory of the season at Martinsville, Gordon moved up from fifth to third in the Chase standings. He is now 27 points out of the lead.
“All we can do is go out and perform at our best and just see what happens,” Gordon said. “The nice thing is that we’re not doing the points racing right now. We’re just going out and just trying to go out and win races and not think about protecting anything. It’s just go and give it everything we’ve got.”
Harvick is fourth in points (-28), followed by Kyle Busch (-36), Bowyer (-55), Earnhardt (-56), Biffle (-58) and Kurt Busch (-75).
Tenth through 13th are: Edwards (-76), Joey Logano (-85), Ryan Newman (-106) and Kahne (-124).
Forty-three teams are on the entry list for the AAA Texas 500.