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Jimmie Johnson, resurgent Matt Kenseth to duel for Sprint Cup title again

By Jim Utter
jutter@charlotteobserver.com

KANSAS CITY, Kan. Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson have slugged it out before while battling for the Sprint Cup Series’ biggest prize.

Eight times since the Chase for the Cup format was adapted in the 2004 season, the two have qualified the same year. Five times during that span, Johnson went on to win the championship.

Only once in the Chase – 2011 – has Kenseth finished ahead of Johnson in the final series standings.

Entering Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, Kenseth remains on track to clear the biggest of NASCAR hurdles: Johnson.

It has happened once before but not in the Chase. Kenseth won the 2003 series title over Johnson when the title was decided by a season-long points race.

For the most part, the Chase has provided Johnson a fertile, championship-winning playground. Of late, however, there have been some new visitors.

Is the 41-year-old Wisconsin native next?

Well, this is Kenseth Version 2.0.

“Matt has always been incredible at scoring points and getting the most out of his race car on a given weekend. He doesn’t let emotions rattle him much,” said Johnson, who trails Kenseth by eight points with seven races remaining this season.

“That part of Matt has always been a consistent thing.”

Yet there are many differences for Kenseth this season.

The biggest and most obvious is the change in scenery. In the offseason, Kenseth moved to Joe Gibbs Racing, just the second team with which he has driven in his nearly 14-year Cup career.

With the move came more success on the track.

Kenseth has already won seven races this season, two more than his previous season high of five in 2002. With seven races still to go, he has already set a career-best for laps led in a season (1,380).

In what may be the most telling statistic of his strength this season, Kenseth has already set a personal career-best finish at four tracks: Darlington, S.C., Kentucky, Chicagoland and New Hampshire.

“The change has been good for him. Is it equipment? Is it a personnel thing, working with someone new and different, that relationship?” Johnson said. “I don’t know where it lies.

“I think the bottom side, the tracks Matt has struggled at for whatever reason, that has risen, and he’s more competitive on those tracks than he was at Roush (Racing).”

The difference has not been lost on Kenseth, who on more than once this season has remarked at his improvement at tracks that have typically caused him problems, like Martinsville, Va.

“I just think about the last two weeks. If you asked me at the beginning of the year, ‘Assume you’re in the Chase, why don’t you preview Loudon (N.H.) and Dover for me?’ I mean, the preview would have been way different than the results turned out to be,” Kenseth said.

“Previously if I could have gotten out of Loudon with a Top-10 I would have been, ‘OK, we got by that. It’s a bad track for me.’ And we won Loudon.

“I think I have more confidence than maybe ever in the Chase because when I look ahead, I really don’t see a track that I’m nervous about or I feel we’re really going to get beat there bad. I don’t have that feeling really anywhere.”

Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, said he has always enjoyed competing against Kenseth.

“He’s a good driver. He’s a clean driver. He understands where he’s at on the race track,” Knaus said of Kenseth. “He really gets it. He gets it more than most of the drivers out there. He knows when to get the (heck) out of the way. He knows when he has the best car.

“I had a lot of respect for Matt when we finished second in the championship to him a few years ago (2003). His father and Matt both came up to me and said, ‘Man, we wanted to win, but you definitely were the best.’”

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