Jimmie and Matt: trading quips (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
FORT WORTH, Texas
Okay, so here's the game, the tale of the tape:
Matt Kenseth versus Jimmie Johnson, Round Eight.
mano a mano
The Texas 500, Sunday.
On one of this sport's ubiquitous 1-1/2-mile tracks.
Kenseth and Johnson, over the past eight season here, have by far the two best records.
And their records so far this year on these type tracks:
Kenseth, four wins in 10 starts, twice at Kansas, at Darlington, and at Charlotte. His average starting position is 10.8; his average finishing position, 5.7. He's led 483 laps.
Johnson, no wins. His average starting position is 7.4; his average finishing position, 9.3. He's led 433 laps.
Johnson, again sporting Lowe's blue.
Kenseth, for one of the few times this season, sporting solid Home Depot orange.
Home Depot, after so many years of watching its arch-rival dominate this sport, has been slowly fading out of this sport, with fewer and fewer clearly defined marques at the track. Ironically just as Kenseth is carrying the game right at Johnson, week after week, and now with a championship in sight.
Johnson and Lowe's have won five of the last seven NASCAR titles; Home Depot's last title was in 2005 with Tony Stewart.
Finally the orange car again (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski put their Fords on the front row in Friday afternoon qualifying....adding to the Ford mystery this year.
Johnson made a cool save on his qualifying lap, third fastest, barely scraping the fourth turn wall.
"I knew there was going to be contact, just didn't know how much," Johnson said. "It was exciting. That lap shows this car has a lot of speed."
If the almost zany speed here isn't exciting enough, Texas Motor Speedway promoter Eddie Gossage, whose willingness, eagerness for the outlandish is renowned in this sport, has created a new Texas Motor Speedway 'milkshake,' for the truly brave:
Six ounces Ugly Pug Black Lager, six ounces of vanilla ice cream, two ounces of bacon-infused maple syrup, all blended. Topped with whipped cream and bacon crumbles.
Because this is Eddie Gossage's Texas, and he can.
Hunting season opens......Wouldn't be Texas without firearms and fireworks. But just what is that rifle in Carl Edwards' hands? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Is this championship now down to 'weaknesses' rather than 'strengths'?
"I don't think there is a weakness for either team right now," Johnson said. "But if there is a mistake, that could be the deciding factor."
Johnson himself may have dodged one of those 'mistakes' last Sunday on pit road at Martinsville Speedway.
It was one of the surprises of the chase, when Greg Biffle got so upset with Johnson that he confronted him angrily after the race on pit road and jerked him around.
How did Johnson keep his cool at that moment?
"I don't know what kept me from swinging, to be honest," Johnson said.
"We were roughing each other pretty good for a couple of laps out on the track. But I thought it was over.
"When it happened afterwards, I didn't know who it was at first.
"After he grabbed me, the look in his eyes...he wasn't really looking at me, he was looking around.
"I think he was just surprised as anyone.
"I've been in a few fights, not many. But he didn't want to fight; he was just angry."
Crew chief Jason Ratcliff (L) and Matt Kenseth: can they hold on to win this championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Part of Biffle's anger may well have stemmed from a season's worth of frustrations. He did get Jack Roush's Ford into victory lane at Michigan in June, but most weekends Biffle and his fellow Ford drivers have been racing in the shadows.
And Edwards may be part of this Ford enigma.
During his early years on the tour Edwards was a hard-charger, leading laps and winning. But his last 'great' year was 2008, when he won nine times, led 1,282 laps and came close to beating Johnson for the title.
The next season, though, he went winless, not leading much at all.
He finally broke back into the win column in 2010, and in 2011 -- in his epic title bout with Tony Stewart -- he was again leading bunches of laps (903), winning only once but scoring 19 top-fives.
Last season however the drought returned. He went winless, failed to make the playoffs, wound up 15th. His worst season since his rookie year.
This season Edwards has been a bit better, two poles now, two wins (Phoenix and Richmond). But still he hasn't been a major factor most weekends.
"We started off slow and easy in the chase, and then backed it down from there," Edwards joked.
"We felt we could win this chase. But obviously that hasn't happened.
"Those other guys have really stepped it up. And we all realize that in the company; I just spent a lot of time with Robbie Reiser (Jack Roush's competition director). Robbie is really working his tail off.
"We realize this chase has not gone well, and that has sparked a lot of work.
"We have a lot of areas we're working on."
Edwards, remember, could easily win all three of these last three races. Homestead is one of his best tracks, and he won Phoenix in the spring, and he's won here three times, more than anyone in the field.
The tires? "This track has taken rubber well," Edwards says. "So I think there will be four or five distinct grooves Sunday."
Kenseth and Johnson are trying hard to have fun with this title fight, but the tension slips out every now and then.
"It might change from his end if we're still in it all the way to the end, but I'm just not really into all the
head games," Kenseth says with a grin.
"I'm not smart enough to be in the head games, and insults, and some of the stuff we've seen over the last
"My brain is over-capacity already, trying to figure out how to make my car fast enough."
Of course Kenseth's self-deprecating humor is a weapon itself.
To road to the championship, these past many years, has been right through Jimmie Johnson.
"They always say, if you want to be the man, you have to beat the man, and he's always definitely been the man," Kenseth said.
Kenseth and Johnson have had some great duels over the years. For some reason, it seems that Johnson has gotten the better of Kenseth more often than Kenseth of Johnson.
"There's been a few races here where I've been leading right down to the end and then got beat, so I was disappointed," Kenseth said. "That was one of them (Texas in 2007).
"You always hate to be out front and get beat -- similar to last weekend -- because you beg your team to get you in that position, and then when you can't hold on, you feel like it's on you.
"I do remember that day (here six years ago): Jimmie was faster and ran us down. I think he was leading the points and we were pretty much out of the championship battle. So man I raced him as hard as I could, hoping he would be a little bit cautious and I would be able to win the race and hang on. But I couldn't.
"He beat us. It was a heck of a race. I hope to turn the tables some day and be able to beat him.
"He's beaten me on a couple of them late. Beat me at Las Vegas one time -- passed me on turn four on the last lap. And we'd led all day. It still stings. He actually has that picture hung up somewhere. I saw a TV special on him once and he had that picture in the background with him crossing the finish line ahead of me.
"I remember that. Hopefully we can turn the tables and pull off a win on him toward the end someday."
Hey, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson better not forget Kevin Harvick, lurking (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)