HUNTERSVILLE – Jimmie Johnson’s quest for a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship is two races from being realized.
Johnson’s main contender in the title race, Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth, is in a tough spot. Kenseth trails Johnson by just seven points – the same margin 2012 champion Brad Keselowski was behind Johnson with two races left – so it’s not insurmountable.
However, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports team doesn’t plan to have the same sort of mechanical issues that defined its closing stretch last year.
It’s up to Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota team to find another gear as the sport heads to Phoenix International Raceway for the AdvoCare 500K on Nov. 10. Since it joined NASCAR as a manufacturer in 2006, Toyota has not won a Sprint Cup title.
Kenseth’s first season at Huntersville-based JGR, after 13 years driving Roush-Fenway Racing Fords, has led to seven wins. A second title would be the crown jewel for Kenseth, who won it all in 2003.
“You just have to focus on the things that you can control. You can't control how your competition runs,” Kenseth said. “The only thing you can work on is your own car and your own respective race team. I think we’ll go on and race as hard as we can and try to get the best finish we can.
“Hopefully, we've got cars (that are) fast enough, I don't make mistakes, and we can do everything right and be a contender to win each and every week, make it to the end and get some good finishes."
Kenseth’s fourth-place finish Nov. 3 at Texas Motor Speedway was full of speed and mistakes. He was fast, but a pit-road speeding penalty – plus a slow pit stop earlier in the race – helped negate Kenseth’s strong car at Texas.
Johnson won, and his Hendrick teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished second. Kenseth’s teammate, Kyle Busch, was also busted for speeding down pit lane. Busch, who was in the top three with 40 laps to go, finished 13th. He’s fourth in points and has too much ground to make up with just two races left.
So Toyota’s hope of its first title falls on one of its newest drivers.
Johnson’s car owner, Rick Hendrick, said in his post-race press conference at Texas that he believes Kenseth’s team will bounce back.
“I think Jimmie has been very confident, but nobody has said he was unbeatable this year,” Hendrick said. “Really, Matt's been right there the whole year. But it could be Jimmie next week. It could be Matt next week. You just don't know.”
Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, said the Texas win was business as usual for the team. When Johnson faced a similar issue as Kenseth – a lengthy late-race pit stop which cost them track position – no one panicked.
“I think that's pretty classic 48,” Knaus said. “We worry about us and just kind of let everything else go the way it should.”
Kenseth said his strategy is the same: Race as hard as possible and let the chips fall where they may. If all goes well for Team 20, they’ll hoist Toyota’s first-ever championship banner.
“I still feel good,” Kenseth said. “We’re right in it.”