Updated: November 4, 2013, 1:40 PM ET

Jimmie Johnson Dominates Texas

Sprint Cup: Kenseth falls behind in title chase

By Brant James | ESPN.com

The bad news for Matt Kenseth is ... actually, there was a lot of bad news for Matt Kenseth on Sunday. Jimmie Johnson, though espousing a realization of how no momentum matters until it pushes you to the presentation stage, that no lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup is safe until that lead is final, had just run off with an oppressive victory at Texas Motor Speedway to take a seven-point advantage over his Joe Gibbs Racing foe with only two races remaining in the season.

Kenseth had been the master of 1.5-mile racetracks this season with four wins and Johnson had yet to break through on what was once the pathway to his five Sprint Cup championships. But a week after Kenseth nullified Johnson's seeming advantage by leaving Martinsville -- where Johnson was the active leader with eight wins -- tied for the points lead, the 2003 series champion had not only been outdone but thrashed at Texas despite finishing fourth.

It felt like a prairie fire whipped by gathering winds, this autumnal Johnson momentum.

Matt Kenseth
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesMatt Kenseth has two races -- Phoenix and Homestead-Miami -- to make up the seven-point gap separating him and Jimmie Johnson.

But it could have been worse, far worse, in a No. 20 Toyota Kenseth described as "wobbly" in the final quarter of the race, especially after a pit road speeding penalty had earlier knocked him from second position to 16th in the running order and necessitated a long slog back to the periphery of threatening the eventual winner. The penalty didn't matter that much, Kenseth said. Nothing really did Sunday. It was about hanging on and moving on.

"Honestly, [Johnson] had us from the time they unloaded until the time they put it back on the truck," Kenseth said. "They were just dominant all weekend.

"That speeding penalty got us behind -- we definitely didn't need that -- but really I don't know at the end of the day if that really affected our finish much."

Kenseth described Sunday as a "pretty good night" all things considered, and expressed excitement over trying again Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway (3 p.m. ET, ESPN). Strategy, he said, won't diverge and neither will the mindset. "If you're going to win a championship," he said, "you have to win races and you have to go through [Johnson]."

"We're right in it, as good as my team is," Kenseth added, "even if nobody has any trouble. If we hit everything right we can have days like he [Johnson] had today and we've had them this year."

Indeed, a title chase that has been realistically, if not statistically, distilled to a match race for weeks, is about two more head-to-head battles. With the win Sunday, Johnson not only leads in points but is just one win behind Kenseth (seven) for the series lead.

Johnson said he feels "better about Phoenix" than he did this time last year, but is fully aware how fragile even a concept momentum can be. After winning at Martinsville and Texas last fall, his aura of late-season infallibility was pierced when a right front tire failed with 76 laps left at Phoenix, leading to a 32nd-place finish, erasing a seven-point lead and allowing Brad Keselowski to assume the top spot in the standings permanently. A gear problem and subsequent 36th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway finished him.

"I guess the lesson in all of that is I'm not counting on anything, and I have to go to Phoenix and race, same as Homestead," Johnson said. "It does simplify things a little bit. I'm not going to get too excited about things during the course of the week. I'm going to work real hard and train my butt off, stay in this little world that I've been living in for the last five or six months, but more so the last eight weeks, and show up ready to go these next two weeks."

Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, said that although "we're in as good or maybe just a pinch better shape this year," he considers Kenseth a "little more formidable" as an opponent compared to the sometimes-mercurial Keselowski.

"I think Matt, just from his personality standpoint, is a little more controlled," Knaus said. "He's a little more mature. He's been in the sport for a long time. I think he's just a little more even-keel, so that makes him a little more challenging to get off kilter, off rocker, so we'll have to see how it shakes outcome Phoenix." And ultimately, Kenseth believes, his pursuit of a second championship -- and first in the Chase era -- is under his control no matter how Johnson performs.

"It's not insurmountable," Kenseth said of the points deficit. "The math works out if you win the last two races. It's still in our hands. It's not like we have to have somebody have trouble.

"If we go out there and can outrun everybody for two weeks, then it's ours."

If he can outrun Johnson on another day like Sunday, he will have earned his trophy.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr.


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