Jimmie Johnson poised for sixth title

NASCAR

Whatever you may think about how it’s framed or operated, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup championship has once again come down to a two-man battle through the year’s final races. This year’s championship duel has taken place between five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and 2003 champion Matt Kenseth with the title to be decided in next Sunday’s season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Johnson and Kenseth may well be NASCAR’s two most respected, yet understated drivers, and they’ve put on a first class act with both of them running at or near the front in most of the last 10 ‘Chase for the Cup’ races. They’ve displayed the best of racing skills and ethics and enjoy a strong mutual respect – everything most of us would like to see in an ideal sporting contest.

But with TV ratings flat and crowds continuing to decline at many races there’s lots of hand-wringing that Johnson and Kenseth are far too nice and boring. The critics yearn for keen rivalries and sharp, nasty words but they’re not going to get any of that with this pair of consummate pros.

NASCAR’s most successful champions
Richard Petty (1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1979)
Dale Earnhardt (1980, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994)
Jimmie Johnson (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010)
Jeff Gordon (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001)
Lee Petty (1954, 1958, 1959)
David Pearson (1966, 1968, 1969)
Cale Yarborough (1976, 1977, 1978)
Darrell Waltrip (1981, 1982, 1985)
Tony Stewart (2002, 2005, 2011)

After ceding NASCAR’s championship title to Tony Stewart two years ago and to Brad Keselowski in 2012, Johnson re-established himself as the man to beat through the first half of this year but Kenseth came on strong as the unrelenting 36-race season wore on.

NASCAR’s deeply competitive field mitigates against favourites but Johnson cast himself in that role as he drove his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to a dominant win in February’s season-opening Daytona 500 and ran at or near or front on every type of track, thus arriving at the mid-season break with a comfortable lead in points.

In the second half of the season however, Johnson was a little less good and a little less lucky as Kenseth hit his stride in his first year with Joe Gibbs’ Toyota team. Kenseth, 41, is a supremely understated upper Midwesterner from Wisconsin who drove for Jack Roush’s Ford team for fourteen years from 1999-2012. Kenseth was NASCAR’s rookie of the year in 2000, won the Sprint Cup championship in ’03 and often finished in the top four or five in points. He also won the Daytona 500 with Roush in 2009 and again in 2012.

Kenseth still a contender

A cool customer on and off the track, Kenseth left Roush at the end of last year to join Joe Gibbs’ Toyota team beside the mercurial Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Busch and Hamlin are considered two of NASCAR’s fastest drivers but Gibbs reckoned his young stallions needed a man of Kenseth’s experience and countenance to help mold them into championship contenders.

Kenseth quickly became the de facto team leader and he emerged late in the summer as a serious championship contender, running at the front in most races and taking over the championship lead from Johnson.

But Johnson fought back, scoring a dominant victory on the high-banked Texas Motor Speedway on the first weekend in November. It was his sixth win of the year and 66th of his career. At Phoenix last weekend, Johnson qualified on the pole and enjoyed another strong race, finishing third while Kenseth had a bad day, struggling with an ill-handling car and coming home 23rd, one lap down.

So Johnson leads Kenseth by 28 points going into next weekend’s season finale in south Florida. That means Johnson can sew up his sixth championship by finishing 23rd or better even if Kenseth were to win the race from pole and lead the most laps.

The other challengers

Kyle Busch battled with teammate Kenseth and Johnson through the early rounds of the Chase, but much as usual, he ran into too many incidents and accidents. Kyle certainly has the speed to win the championship but unlike Kenseth and Johnson he continues to lack the pace and consistency on all types of tracks.

Early in the year Gibbs’ third driver Denny Hamlin was fined $20,000 by NASCAR for publicly criticising the latest Generation 6 car, then badly injured his back in a heavy collision with the wall. As a result Hamlin missed a handful of mid-season races and didn’t qualify for The Chase.

The only team to get all of its drivers into the Chase was Hendrick Motorsports with Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Kasey Kahne. Gordon was added to the Chase after a brace of penalties to other drivers and teams at the final qualifying race before. The four-time champion showed he belonged by scoring his 88th win at Martinsville in October but a crash following a tyre failure in Texas a few weeks ago knocked him out of contention for the championship.

Other championship contenders included last weekend’s Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick in his last of 13 years aboard one of Richard Childress’s Chevrolets, Clint Bowyer in one of Michael Waltrip’s Toyotas and Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle aboard two of Roush-Fenway’s trio of Fords. Each of these guys was capable of winning races, but none showed the necessary speed and consistency on all tracks to offer a serious threat to the likes of Kenseth and Johnson.

Defending champion Brad Keselowski ran well in many races but he and Roger Penske’s NASCAR team didn’t show the strength they exhibited in 2012. Penske switched from Dodge to Ford for the new season and the team suffered a setback at Texas in April when NASCAR fined them $200,000 and suspended Keselowski’s and teammate Joey Logano’s crew chiefs for six weeks because of illegal modifications to their rear axle housings and suspension.

Seven crew members also were suspended for two races. Keselowski ran near the front in many races but he didn’t make this year’s Chase and didn’t win a race until late in the season.

2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup standings
1. Jimmie Johnson (2384 points)
2. Matt Kenseth (2356 points)
3. Kevin Harvick (2350 points)
4. Kyle Busch (2327 points)
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr (2321 points)
6. Jeff Gordon (2304 points)
7. Greg Biffle (2301 points)
8. Clint Bowyer (2297 points)
9. Joey Logano (2287 points)
10. Kurt Busch (2285 points)

Nor was 2011 champion Stewart a contender this year. Stewart managed to win a race at Dover, Delaware in June but was a mid-fielder in many races and badly broke a leg in a mid-summer sprint car accident sidelining himself for the rest of the season.

Ryan Newman continued in Stewart’s second car and won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis but Newman will be replaced in 2014 by Kevin Harvick. Kurt Busch also joins Stewart’s team for the new year driving a fourth car beside Stewart, Harvick and Danica Patrick. The latter ran her rookie season in the Sprint Cup series but other than taking a not unsurprising pole at the Daytona 500 she was disappointing, qualifying and running outside the top 20 in most races.

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