The Inside Line: Johnson in catbird seat for Cup title

Philadelphia, PA ( - Put the six-pack on ice for Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team this coming weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Johnson is on the cusp of winning his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship. His third-place run compared to a 23rd-place finish for Matt Kenseth in Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway allowed Johnson to widen his lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup title to 28 points over Kenseth. Kevin Harvick remained in championship contention after winning at Phoenix. Harvick is currently 34 points behind.

If Johnson finishes 23rd or better in the season-ending race at Homestead, he will clinch the championship, regardless of any other driver's finish there.

"I'm in a position I want to be in," Johnson said. "I want to go down there and defend the championship."

Johnson won a NASCAR record five consecutive championships from 2006-10 but has been denied the title the past two years. Tony Stewart claimed his third series championship in a tiebreaker with Carl Edwards in 2011. Last year, Johnson held the points lead with two races to go in the Chase but finished 32nd at Phoenix and then 36th at Homestead, which help Brad Keselowski clinch his first Sprint Cup title.

After starting on the pole, Johnson had a couple of close calls in this year's Chase race at Phoenix. Joey Logano bumped Johnson from behind and nearly put him into the wall on the opening lap. Midway into the event, he almost wrecked when Carl Edwards made contact with him.

"The one with the 22 (Logano) didn't worry me too much," Johnson said. "I felt like I had enough room and then the way the car was sliding to save it. But the one with the 99 (Edwards), I saved it and then the car pointed back at the fence. I thought I was going to hit it. Thankful that didn't happen. Certainly worried me."

Kenseth dealt with an ill-handling car throughout the race. He also had a mishap on one of his pit stops, which took 25 seconds to complete and lost him valuable track position.

"We were just really off and could never quite get it right," Kenseth said. "Just didn't have real great track position, and once we got off a little bit and lost the rest of track position, we could never overcome it. Disappointing day, but yet, what a great season. We still have a race left next weekend that we're going to try to win."

Kenseth led in the standings for the first five races in the Chase but fell four points behind Johnson at Talladega. But Kenseth rebounded the following week at Martinsville, finishing second and moving into a points tie with Johnson.

After winning last week's race at Texas, Johnson grabbed a seven-point lead over Kenseth, who finished fourth.

One year ago, Johnson's misfortune at Phoenix put him 20 points behind Keselowski.

"I sympathize with Matt," Johnson said. "We were in that position last year and we went to Homestead and still had a shot and put a lot of pressure on the 2 (Keselowski). Then we made mistakes again that took us out of it."

Homestead has not been one of Johnson's better racetracks. It's one of a handful of tracks on the current Sprint Cup schedule where Johnson has yet to win. He finished 32nd there two years ago. Johnson did finish second in the 2004 and '10 races.

"If we have a hiccup or some type of mistake at Homestead, it'll be a race between the 20 (Kenseth) and the 29 (Harvick)," he said. "But I feel like if we go down there and run as we should, then we should be able to take care of business."

If Kenseth or Harvick has a shot at winning the championship, they would need for Johnson to have a disastrous performance at Homestead.

But there is another way of preventing Johnson from claiming the title, which Harvick suggested during his race-winning press conference at Phoenix.

"We're talking about locking him in the port-a-potty, so that should sum it up," Harvick jokingly said.

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