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In case no one has been paying attention, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship has come down to two races, essentially between two men – five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and 2003 champion Matt Kenseth. Seven points separate the two drivers with the next-closest driver 40 points out.
It’s a sports fan’s dream, a tight championship battle. Like the NFL Super Bowl in 2000, when the St. Louis Rams won after the final drive by the Tennessee Titans ended a yard shy of the goal line as time expired, this year’s NASCAR championship battle is expected to produce much of the same excitement, going “all the way to the last lap in Homestead,” as noted by Johnson.
For those who chose to take a negative point of view by saying there’s no rivalry between the two champions who have acknowledged that they are friends off the track – their daughters recently went on a Play-Doh® buying trip together – well, those naysayers are sorely mistaken.Johnson recently said a rivalry does exist – a healthy rivalry, with healthy being the key word, when the helmets go on.
The two will display what has made them champions this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. Johnson may seem to hold an edge with a series-best four career wins at the track (November 2007, April and November 2008, November 2009), as well as the best driver rating, which is NASCAR’s measure of key statistical categories.
But as this exciting championship battle has shown, expect the unexpected because, when the helmets go on, these two know how to get it done.
Here is what Johnson had to say heading into Phoenix:
You haven’t been as successful at Phoenix since the repave. Can you talk about the differences between before and after?
“It’s just a whole new racetrack. We had a good run in the spring. I’m certainly hopeful that the direction we took things in the spring was right and obviously we had a good run, but that we have built on that and can have a race-winning car there now. The track was so good to us for so long that I hated to see it reconfigured and repaved, but we just have to get on top of things and get right over there.”
You are currently seven points ahead of Matt Kenseth. What’s your mindset heading into Phoenix?
"Well, there’s still a lot of racing left and the two tracks that remain on the schedule are very challenging tracks. Last year, we were in this situation with a points lead. We had a seven‑point lead going into Phoenix and had a very bad race and blew a right-front tire. Actually, we had a decent race going but blew out the right-front tire and hammered the wall. It really hurt our opportunity and our chance to win a sixth championship then. So I’m just not going to put my guard down. We need to go into Phoenix and race well. We finished second there in the spring, so we’re confident in our setup and the performance we should have there. But that doesn’t guarantee us anything, and we need to go out and have a good, strong, clean weekend.”