FORT WORTH, Texas – Matt Kenseth started to answer a question about how he could affect Jimmie Johnson on the track when the five-time Sprint Cup champion suddenly leaned around a corner of the room.
Then after both finished their qualifying laps later at Texas, Kenseth was trackside during more interviews when Johnson playfully interrupted him and handed him a drink.
It’s appropriate that the two are so close to each other so much. Kenseth and Johnson are deadlocked for the points lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup with three races left. The next race is today at the high-banked, 1 1/2 -mile Texas track where they are statistically the best two drivers.
Johnson and Kenseth have each won twice at Texas, where their 15 top-10 finishes are tied for the most and they have the best average finishes – Kenseth at 8.5, just ahead of Johnson’s 9.1.
It might change from his end if we’re still in it all the way to the end, but I’m just not really into all the head games, Kenseth said. My brain is over capacity already with trying to figure out how to make my race car fast enough to be the best. They always say, if you want to be the man, you have to beat the man and he’s always definitely been the man.
Johnson qualified his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet third at Texas. He will start in the row ahead of Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, who will start sixth.
The two competitors seem to be enjoying the Chase, on and off the track.
I think we do have a lot of similarities in the way we race. Being around him, off the track as well and with his family, we have a lot in common, Johnson said. I wouldn’t say we are identical. But we do have something very deep down that is very common between the both of us, the way we approach things a little more laid back.
Carl Edwards, the only three-time Cup winner at Texas, is the polesitter for the 501-mile race.
Jeff Gordon starts eighth a week after he got himself back in the title conversation with a victory at Martinsville that moved up to a season-high third in points. He is 27 points behind the leaders.
Still, this is likely a two-man Chase in Texas, where in the last two falls the top two contenders coming in also finished 1-2 in that race.
In 2011, Tony Stewart won to get within eight points of Edwards’ lead. Stewart went on to win the season title.
Last November, Johnson and Brad Keselowski raced side-by-side in the closing laps, even slamming together without crashing. Johnson won the race and left with the points lead, but Keselowski overcame him the last two races for the championship.
It’s definitely a tense period of time. Actually it’s a lot of fun once I can really slow things down and pay attention to it, Johnson said. Having to race so hard for it and fight for each and every point as we have is, in most situations, a lot of fun. It’s not over yet.
Johnson had a slim points lead when he arrived at Texas in 2010 in a close three-way Chase but finished ninth that day and fell out of the lead. He did recover to win the last of his five consecutive titles.
Kenseth has been a runner-up at Texas four times, including the spring race in 2007 when Jeff Burton passed him on the last lap for his only lead to win. That fall, Kenseth and Johnson traded the lead several times in the closing laps.
Brad Keselowski raced to his sixth Nationwide victory in his last eight starts, leading 106 of 200 laps at Texas to give Roger Penske’s No. 22 car the lead in the owners’ standings.
For the drivers’ title, Sam Hornish Jr. overcame being a lap down early in the race to finish third and cut his deficit behind Austin Dillon from eight points to six with two races left in the season.