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Johnson, Kenseth Remain Locked in NASCAR Title Toss-Up


Someday, fans will look back and recognize the magnitude of what Jimmie Johnson has accomplished. Already a five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, two races away from (potentially) number six, he’s done it in an era where parity amongst the top teams reigns supreme. At an organization built around Jeff Gordon, his co-car owner who also hired him, Johnson stole the spotlight along with the lofty goals Gordon once seemed capable of reaching.

But most race fans now read that first paragraph and immediately think of throwing up. To them, Johnson is the anti-Christ, a prime example of everything gone wrong with their beloved sport. A dominant win is treated as boring; his personality, no matter the scenario, is labeled generic and emotionless. While the sport’s other champions, like Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr., evoked passion in the fan base, Johnson — apart from his own group of loyalists — doesn’t move the needle. He’s the most polished, professional champion the sport has ever seen, yet it’s that same presentation which proves part of the problem.

Combine those feelings with Sunday’s Texas trouncing and you have a recipe for fan unrest. No wonder this race, in several circles, was labeled one of the worst within a Chase that’s actually seen TV ratings rise. What a weird problem for NASCAR to have, right? Build a showdown around Peyton Manning in the NFL or LeBron James in the NBA and your most successful star on paper draws record ratings. Put Johnson at his best, front and center?

Too much of NASCAR’s loyal fan base still wants to run.

“Through the Gears” we go, post-Texas …

FIRST GEAR: The title is a toss-up  
Johnson, in leading 255 laps Sunday, took the upper hand in this seesaw title race. Just one week ago it seemed Matt Kenseth, fresh off out-pointing his rival at Martinsville, was poised to pull away at this intermediate track. Instead? It was Johnson’s first 1.5-mile victory of the season, as these men keep besting each other in ways that leave the pundits looking foolish.

Now we head to Phoenix with Johnson armed with the same seven-point lead he had last season over Brad Keselowski. But as we saw then, that margin is far from a guarantee come Homestead. Last year, the No. 48 team pulled up a rare stinker in this same situation; a blown tire in Phoenix and a mechanical mess in Homestead led to a third-place points finish. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus say they’ve learned their lesson, leaning on years of experience to make that a one-time aberration.

As for Kenseth, his mission at Phoenix is to keep himself afloat and Johnson in sight. With one career win at Homestead — one of the few places his rival hasn’t won — you’d think the No. 20 team would have the upper hand. But it’s a true toss-up going forward, folks.

SECOND GEAR: Will Dale Jr. always be second best?  
Sunday marked Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fifth second-place run of the season. Yes, the No. 88 team has failed to reach Victory Lane, but that runner-up total is still his best with Hendrick Motorsports. In no previous season has Junior had more than three top-two runs with HMS; in six years with the organization, he’s only had a grand total of 10. Bottom line, this “close but no cigar” routine is actually a strong step in the right direction.

“We want to put forward a good account of ourselves in the Chase because you're in there for a reason and you don't want to be an also ran,” said Earnhardt, up to a Chase-high fifth in points. “So we feel like we're doing a lot of good work and getting really close to probably breaking through and getting a win.”

It’s an impressive rebound, considering an engine failure at Chicagoland left this team out of the title Chase before it began. Should these results hold through the final two races, Earnhardt will have his best points season since 2006, when he was driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Two more top-10 finishes in the final two races would also give him a new career high in the category (22). It’s clear the move into the No. 48 shop has paid dividends for Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte. Their chemistry has never been stronger.

At the same time, just like with everyone else at Hendrick, these days you get the feeling this run may be as good as Earnhardt could ever do there. Since Johnson entered the scene full-time in 2002, no other driver at HMS has won a Cup championship. Could Earnhardt, in the same shop as a possible six-time champion, suddenly rise up and steal a few? The way history has played out, you have to wonder. Turning 40 next year, the marketability of even an Earnhardt remains in question; it’s now been 12 years since his father’s death, where a whole generation of teenagers don’t “get” the name in quite the same way. Is this season a slow build towards a multi-win 2014 or are we seeing the peak of this partnership right now?

With two wins in Earnhardt’s now seven seasons with the team that remains an open question.

THIRD GEAR: The importance of pit roadIn looking at the final two races this championship, it more than likely could be won or lost in the pits. It almost happened Sunday, when a pit road speeding penalty doomed Kenseth to the tail of the lead lap in 16th. It took him 100 circuits or so and with the help of some cautions to work back inside the top 5.

Even Johnson, whose car was unstoppable, suffered from a 17.0-second stop that dropped the No. 48 from the lead to fourth. Texas, with its multiple grooves, offered an opportunity for him to quickly find his way back to the point. But Phoenix, with its newly-paved asphalt? That track position-race will offer no such freebie. In the spring, pole-sitter Mark Martin seemed unstoppable until a tire failure left him last on the lead lap. The No. 55 car was still fast; it was just simply impossible to pass. He wound up a mediocre 21st.

Considering that layout, this Sunday will be a head-to-head battle between crew chiefs Jason Ratcliff and Chad Knaus. Who will play poker with two-tire stops late in the race to keep track position? Can each mechanic develop a setup that will allow their driver to pass on restarts? Their minds, along with the speed of their crews, could make all the difference in this title race. 

FOURTH GEAR: Fords forging ahead  
Ever so quietly, teams are working on 2014 — and we’ve seen some steps forward by the Fords. Carl Edwards, after winning the pole, was competitive at Texas until blowing his engine. Penske Racing’s Joey Logano finished a strong third while teammate Brad Keselowski was fourth. The reigning champion is actually best of the non-Chasers, 14th in points, and has one win this postseason.

It’s been a slow, steady rebuild for the Fusions after starting out a step behind on NASCAR’s Gen-6. With Greg Biffle in a contract year, Penske showing signs of life and Edwards, now two years removed from championship heartbreak, I expect Ford to come out of the gate strong in Daytona.

It was a slow, steady drive you didn’t get to see on TV, but Parker Kligerman’s 18th-place finish in his Cup debut for Swan Racing was one of the better runs for an underdog we’ve seen this year. That car, once driven by David Stremme, had just four top-20 finishes in 2013 — none of which came on intermediates — and is woefully underfunded compared to the “big guns.” The Nationwide Series regular might have earned himself a Cup ride for 2014. … Jeff Burton, in published interviews, suddenly doesn’t seem so sure he’ll have an opportunity next year. That leaves Burton, 2000 Cup champ Bobby Labonte and Mark Martin (subbing for Tony Stewart) as three big-name drivers who all could potentially hang it up after Homestead. … It’s unclear whether NAPA Auto Parts will follow Martin Truex Jr. to his new ride at Furniture Row Racing. But if it does, that may mean good things for other drivers facing the unemployment line. Owner Barney Visser has always had his own money to sponsor the program and has always wanted to start a second team, even on a limited basis.

Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter:@NASCARBowles
Photos byAction Sports, Inc.