FORT WORTH, Texas – Deadlocked.
Through seven rounds of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, two heavyweights have battled to a draw. Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson boast identical point totals – 2,294 – entering Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Everything may be bigger in Texas – and nothing is bigger right now than this season’s championship slugfest.
A shared points lead with three races remaining is unprecedented, in Chase for NASCAR Sprint Cup history or since 1975, when the current points structure was implemented. In 1996, Jeff Gordon led Terry Labonte by a single point. A year ago, Johnson held a two-point lead over champion-to-be Brad Keselowski.
Kenseth has one current advantage – the tie-breaker, based upon seven victories to his rival’s five. The rule has been invoked just once to settle a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the 2011 season tied in points. Stewart claimed his third title with five wins to Edwards’ one.
The points leader entering the season’s final three races won the championship in five of the Chase’s first seven seasons. But in each of the last two, that changed. Stewart overhauled Edwards in 2011; and Keselowski overcame Johnson’s advantage a year ago.
Kenseth and Johnson enjoy similar success at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Each has won twice although Johnson’s victories – in 2007 and a year ago – came in the track’s Chase race.
The five-time champion’s first victory, in which Johnson and Kenseth traded the lead three times over the race’s final seven laps, might be seen as a preview of Sunday’s race. Johnson won by .944 second.
“Both of us (were) sideways and just driving the wheels off the cars,” Johnson said recently recalling the battle. “From my standpoint I think it was an amazing race.”
Kenseth’s average finish at Texas Motor Speedway is 8.5. Johnson is close at 9.1. Kenseth owns the track’s best Driver Rating of 106.5. Johnson is second at 103.3. The edge goes to Kenseth in laps led – 772 to Johnson’s 443.
The most glaring difference – at least in 2013, the first season for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ Gen-6 car – is in 1.5-mile track performance. Four of Kenseth’s seven wins have come on such tracks. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, won April’s Texas race from the Coors Light Pole. Johnson has been shut out on the 1.5s – as have his Hendrick Motorsports partners Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne.
Johnson finished sixth at Texas in April while Kenseth was 12th. Neither led a lap.
“We can race anybody head to head for it. I feel good about that,” said Kenseth of the remaining three races. “You never know what’s going to happen but I feel like we’re certainly capable.”
In Texas, the championship runner-up actually has performed better than the champion. In eight races – the track joined the Chase in 2005 – the second-place driver has won three times with five finishes among the top five and six in the top 10. That compares with the champion’s two wins, four top fives and six top 10s. While Texas competition has changed the points lead three times, only one of those leaders – Johnson in 2010 – went on to take the championship.