Salute! Jimmie Johnson, toasted by Texas boss Eddie Gossage. Is Five-Time on his way to Mr. Six-Pack? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Is it all over for Matt Kenseth?
Did Jimmie Johnson's impressive Texas 500 win effectively clinch his sixth NASCAR title?
That's what the numbers appear to say.
Of course one year ago Brad Keselowski beat the numbers.
However Kenseth might have just missed his last best chance to take command of the championship chase, with his struggles at Texas.
Just like Johnson stumbled at one of his favorite tracks, Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago, Kenseth last weekend stumbled at one of his favorites, Texas Motor Speedway.
Now Johnson's seven-point lead over Johnson certainly isn't much at all -- a Kenseth win here and a Johnson fourth place finish would put Kenseth back atop the standings. And these final 712 miles of racing, here and at Homestead, offer plenty of opportunities for mistakes.
But Sunday's race here certainly doesn't favor Kenseth. His career finishing record at this flat one-mile is a sluggish 17.182. His only win here came back in 2002. And Kenseth hasn't had a top-five finish since 2007.
Johnson has four wins here. However it's been four years since his most recent. Since then, though, Johnson has logged five top-fives in seven starts, including a second here in the spring.
In fact when it comes to career finishing average at Phoenix, Johnson's 6.450 is far better than anyone else in the field. And Johnson has led far more laps here than anyone.
But one year ago Johnson came here under similar circumstances, holding a seven-point lead, and was running a solid if unspectacular sixth when his right-front tire blew.
"So I'm just not going to put my guard down," Johnson says. "We need to go to Phoenix and race well. We finished second in the spring, so we feel strong about our setup and the performance we should have."
The line on championship contenders is they need to be close enough to the points leader to force him to finish top-five in the Homestead finale. That forces the points leader to race, not slack off.
Kenseth is right at that mark coming into Sunday's race here (3 p.m. ET).
Is Johnson worried about deja voodoo perhaps over these next few days?
He has certainly had a lot of time -- nearly a year now -- to reflect on how he lost last year's championship.
"I've found a lot of peace in expecting the best out of a championship contender, and that's the way it's been this year, and every year, to be honest with you," Johnson says.
"Last year there could have been an opportunity to put pressure on Brad and his team. It was Penske's first championship in Cup, same for driver and crew chief.
"Maybe there was a little opportunity there to put pressure on them and put them into a stressful environment.
"We just didn't do our job.
"And we had our problems in Phoenix and then again at Homestead.
"Honestly in Homestead we had them where we wanted to put them and were really putting the pressure on them to see what they could deal with at that point. But we made too many mistakes and didn't follow through on our side."
How have these two guys fared through the eight playoff races?
Kenseth won the first two, Chicago and Loudon; Johnson finished 5th and 4th.
Johnson won Dover; Kenseth ran 7th.
Kansas was a wild card, with the tire issues. Johnson ran 6th; Kenseth finished 11th
Charlotte was essentially a draw, Kenseth running 3rd, Johnson finishing 4th.
Talladega was another wild card. Both struggled with frustrations late in the single-file finish, Johnson running 13th, Kenseth running 20th.
Martinsville was a surprise, with Kenseth upsetting favored Johnson by finishing 2nd to Johnson's 5th.
And Texas was another surprise, with Johnson romping to a decisive win while Kenseth had to rally to finish 4th.
So Kenseth is averaging 6.1 through these eight races, with two wins. And Johnson is averaging 4.9, with two wins.
Kenseth, seventh here in the spring, says "I thought we ran really well. We just had a few problems during the race, we got back in the pack, and we just weren't able to get back up front in the end."
And Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff are hoping their win at Loudon, N.H., last month -- on a track quite similar to this one -- is more indication of how well they'll do here. The Phoenix, Richmond and Loudon tracks are very similar; Kenseth ran 7th and 6th at Richmond, and 9th in the first Loudon. Johnson ran 12th and 40th at Richmond, 6th and 4th at the two Loudons.
"The short flat-tracks have been good to us this year," Kenseth says.
"Our short track program has improved since the spring," Ratcliff says.
"There's a little different tire this weekend than what we ran in March. I don't expect anything to be a lot different, but you never know."
Johnson isn't alone in feeling this track's recent repave has made racing much more difficult for the drivers. Goodyear's tire selection hasn't won many plaudits either.
"There's definitely less confidence in the track we're racing on now," Johnson says. "We won so many races with the old configuration and that old asphalt.
"We had a good run here in the spring, on the new configuration. But, man, if there was one guy sad to see the old configuration and asphalt go away, that was me. We just had something that worked there and fit my driving style and we were able to win a lot of races.
"But part of our sport is dealing with change. And I feel we're going in the right direction with the track."
Of course there is more to the season than just Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, though that may be difficult to see at times.
A major undercurrent has been these new 2013 stockers. The new models may be considerably better than the COTs used 2007-2012, but the 2013s certainly haven't put on any better shows on Sunday, for whatever reasons.
In fact the Texas grandstands Sunday painted a bleak picture, with perhaps the smallest crowd ever to watch a Cup race at that huge track.
And Jimmie Johnson lead 255 of the 334 laps, most by a wide margin, probably won't spice up ticket sales.
NASCAR isn't alone in the sports battle. Major League Baseball also has its struggles....so much that two interesting suggestions are to require the batter to stay in the box and to require the pitcher to throw his net pitch within seven seconds. Maybe NASCAR officials need to look at ways to speed up this game and make it more enticing to watch.
NASCAR has been looking at new technical rules to tweak the cars for 2014.
A mid-December test at Charlotte Motor Speedway, yet another NASCAR test there, should help set things.
Some teams, however, think all this rules testing stuff is more for show than for go.
But if the new body stylings didn't light a fire under fans, after all the pre-season hype, and early season penalties, why should a few rules tweaks change the dynamic.
NASCAR is now expected to bring the 'tapered spacer' to the Cup series, to try to take 90 horsepower out of these 900 horsepower engines.
NASCAR has tested a roof 'wicker,' running left-to-right, designed to disturb the air; that design was used some 10 years ago, briefly, but it appears the sanctioning body is rejecting that change.
NASCAR will be using larger rear spoilers next season.
And NASCAR is expected to add some holes in the rear bumpers, to vent under-car air flow.
Count team owner Jack Roush among the skeptics:
"NASCAR continues to look for the utopian circumstance that takes every spectator's breath away every lap...
"It's an impossible thing they're looking for, to make the thing increasingly exciting. Because there is only so much you can do with four tires and a 3400-pound car.
"They're looking for something that I'm afraid will not have an impact on the racing but which will cost everyone a lot of money.
"If you look back 30 or 40 years ago, if you had four or five cars on the lead lap, you had a 'close' race. Now they've got all but a handful of cars on the lead lap, and they're still trying to make it more exciting than it is.
"We're pushing the limits of what you can do with the car. And they're just spending money.
"Whatever they do will be all right. But as seen by me, it won't have a dramatic effect on the excitement of the race.
"Races are exciting when you blow tires up; and Goodyear doesn't want you to blow tires up.
"Races are exciting when you run into each other.
"And racing is exciting when you pass. But if you get the cars to where they're all running at the same speed, you get what you saw at Talladega -- all lined up. And unless somebody trips or slips, you stay all lined up.
"And that's what you've got at the unrestricted tracks as well: the cars are so close aerodynamically and in horsepower that there is nothing that separates one from another.
"Now if someone comes up with an invention, or an interpretation of the rules that gives them an advantage, then you've got something that will help you pass cars and separate people.
"But right now they've got 'em all so close together that you've got racing that's got its own tempo....and it's not as exciting as NASCAR would have."
Maybe NASCAR could give bonus points for donuts....
Anything to shake things up.
Maybe the solution to these doldrums isn't all in hardware but perhaps in software -- like the software in a driver's head.
"I've talked to NASCAR about this -- if we all had a couple of mulligans the first 26 races, where you could throw away a bad finish, you would be more willing to put your nose in a place where you're not really sure how it will work out," Roush says.
"I would do two mulligans in the first 26 and one mulligan in the last 10. And until a guy uses that mulligan up, he can go race with abandon."
And that wouldn't cost nearly as much.