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NASCAR Preview: Don’t Give Jimmie Johnson The Title Just Yet

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(Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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Five-time will soon be known as six-pack, the fat lady has sung; stick a fork in it, it’s done. Those are just a few of the phrases heard after last Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway. It was a race that saw Jimmie Johnson overcome issues to finish third while his nearest opponent in NASCAR’s 10 race Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff struggled to a 28th place finish.

It has been rare in 2013 for Matt Kenseth, a former champion, to have a bad finish. In fact, in the eight races leading up to Phoenix, he won two and finished inside the top five in four races. His only other bad finish was a 20th at Talladega.

Kenseth’s finish at Phoenix though seems to have come at the worst possible time. After Talladega there were races left for Kenseth to play catch-up, which he did after finishing second and fourth in the ensuing weeks. That left him first tied with Johnson, then only seven points behind when the series hit Phoenix.

However, after his disastrous outing, Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was uncharacteristically slow and he was forced to pit numerous times as the crew tried in vain to fix it. Kenseth left Phoenix 28 points behind. It was a finish that left him giving a near concession speech on pit road after it was over.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” Kenseth said. “We basically go there without a shot to win. So, I’m obviously disappointed.”

He was referring to this week’s final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. All Johnson needs to do is finish 23rd or better to win the title, no matter what anyone else does.

But before anyone engraves Johnson’s name on the Sprint Cup, a little history lesson is needed. While it has been proven that Johnson can win titles, he has also shown that he can lose them. Last year, Johnson had a seven-point lead over Brad Keselowski heading to Phoenix. Like Kenseth, Johnson had a bad Phoenix result and left with a 20-point deficit behind Keselowski. Johnson needed to put pressure on Keselowski during that final race at Homestead. That didn’t happen. Johnson was knocked out early thanks to mechanical issues. He finished 36th while Keselowski celebrated his first title.

See NASCAR Power Rankings Here.

The fact is Homestead-Miami is one of the few tracks that Johnson, a 66-time Sprint Cup series winner, has yet to go to victory lane at. The year prior, 2011, Johnson crashed and limped to a 32nd place finish. That recent history will be playing in Johnson’s mind as he heads south for the season finale.

“There are so many variables in one of our races,” Johnson said. “I think more variables than any pro sport out there. We have all 43 teams playing, driving, racing, all the mechanical components on the race car, pit stops, other issues on other cars that can take you out, tires. There’s a lot of variables, so we don’t take any of these weekends lightly, even with a nice points lead I’m not going to take any week any differently. There’s still a lot of pressure to get the job done, and it’s no lay-up at all.”

Johnson is correct. While he does enjoy a pretty good points lead, one blown tire or one mechanical issue could leave him on the sidelines Sunday watching from the garage area while someone else celebrates the title that was almost in his grasp. And that includes Kenseth, but it also includes Kevin Harvick, last week’s winner at Phoenix and the only other driver with a chance at the title.

Kenseth has had one win at Homestead. In 2013 (in Bristol in August and Richmond in September), Kenseth outpointed Johnson by more than 28 points. The 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion also holds the tiebreaker—Kenseth has seven season victories to Johnson’s six.

For Harvick, he can race his best and hope. He’s out-pointed Johnson by 35 points in only seven of the 433 races in which they’ve competed head-to-head, once in 2013 (Michigan in August), but never at Homestead.

However, Harvick tops the statistical chart in Homestead—he has the fourth-best Driver Rating (100.1), Average Green Flag Speed (162.022 mph) and Average Running Position (10.6). Two times, he’s finished second among five top fives and has completed all but one of 3,209 laps.

“Anything can happen,” said Harvick. “You have to be in it to win it and (we’ve) done a good job of winning races in the Chase and we will see what happens.”

Johnson, too, is well aware that anything can happen in the season’s final race, but seems ready to get started.

“If we have a hiccup or some type of mistake in 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, we should be able to take care of business.” 

NASCAR This Weekend

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Next Race: Ford EcoBoost 400

The Place: Homestead-Miami Speedway

The Date: Sunday, Nov. 17

The Time: 3 p.m. (ET)

TV: ESPN, 2 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90

Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps)

NASCAR Nationwide Series

Next Race: Ford EcoBoost 300

The Place: Homestead-Miami Speedway

The Date: Saturday, Nov. 16

The Time: 4:30 p.m. (ET)

TV: ESPN2, 4 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90

Distance: 300 miles (200 laps)

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

Next Race: Ford EcoBoost 200

The Place: Homestead-Miami Speedway

The Date: Friday, Nov. 15

The Time: 8 p.m. (ET)

TV: FOX Sports 1, 7:30 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90

Distance: 201 miles (134 laps)

Greg Engle is an Examiner.com writer and an award-winning columnist who has worked full time for the Sporting News and the NASCAR Wire Service—if you wanted to get any more inside the sport of NASCAR you’d have to wear a crash helmet. He has received bylines in hundreds of newspapers across the country on auto sports and has also been featured on NASCAR.com, ThatsRacin.com, ESPN and Fox Sports. His work can be found at Examiner.com.  

 

 

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