Chase shaping up as a two man race

Published 6:47 pm Thursday, November 2, 2006

What looked to be a wide-open Chase for the championship last week might actually only be a two-man race to the title.

It would be fitting if it indeed comes down to a race between Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, because they were the best of the field during the regular season. The two combined to hold down the top spot in the standings for the entire 26 weeks before the Chase for the championship started.

Now they head into the final three races of the year with just 26 points separating Kenseth from second-place Johnson. Although Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are all within striking distance, the Nextel Cup is more than likely Kenseth’s or Johnson’s to lose.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

And, for the first time, Johnson likes his chances.

“I had a great dream about being a champion. That’s the first time for me in my championship battles … I had the sensation of being a champion,” he said. “I didn’t have the full visual of standing on the stage or anything, (but) every thought I have about it fills me up with excitement and happiness, where in the past, I almost had nightmares.

“When I would think of the championship laying there before I’d go to sleep at night … everything was kind of fear-based. This year, everything as I doze off and go to sleep, I’m smiling and I’m like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to get to Texas and Phoenix and Homestead and race for this thing.”’

Kenseth, who won the 2003 championship under NASCAR’s old system, isn’t as wild about his chances as Johnson.

After putting together a late-summer surge that cemented him as the driver to beat, Kenseth has been frustrated with his team’s performance through the first part of the Chase. The dominance they’d shown earlier was gone, and tiny mistakes have been sabotaging their efforts. After a particularly lackluster run in Charlotte, he flatly said his team was “kidding ourselves thinking we can win a championship operating like (that).”

So he refused to celebrate when he moved into the points lead two weeks ago, accepting that his top spot in the standings was the result of the failure of others. But a fourth-place run last week in Atlanta buoyed his spirits, and Kenseth isn’t as pessimistic about his chances as just a few weeks ago.

“We finally showed that we can run with the leaders again, and that was encouraging,” Kenseth said. “There’s three more to go, and if we can continue to work like we did in Atlanta, then we’ll have a shot. But we’ve got be on our game because (Johnson) is very good and that team is capable of clicking off wins and running well.”

Of course, no one is dismissing the rest of the competition. But last week’s race in Atlanta gave Kenseth and Johnson significant separation, leaving Hamlin, Burton and Earnhardt with the best — albeit slim — hope of catching them.

Heading into Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, Hamlin is 65 points out in third place, while Burton and Earnhardt are tied for fourth, 84 points back.

Burton, who looked invincible two weeks ago, isn’t giving up.

“We’re one race away or one poor finish away from one of the top two guys from being right back in it,” he said. “We feel good about the position we’re in, (but) we also understand that we are probably going to have to have a little help.

“In today’s environment, a little bit of help is not out of the realm of possibilities.”

And Earnhardt plans on using Texas this weekend as the place he closes the gap. His confidence is always soaring at that track, where he scored his first career victories in both the Busch and Nextel Cup series.

“Texas was the place where I realized I could make a career out of racing,” he said. “Before our Busch Series win there in ’98, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it as a race car driver. I was living in a doublewide and trying to get my career going. I hadn’t had much success in racing up to that point, but we won that race at Texas, and it set the foundation for our championship that year.”

Now he hopes Sunday’s race will do the same thing for him.