Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson: a heckava ride since back at Daytona in February (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Jimmie Johnson may need a Porta-Potty bodyguard here this weekend, if Gil Martin and the Richard Childress follow up on a plan to slow down Johnson's charge to the NASCAR championship by locking him in a john.
But that may be about the only way to keep Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus from taking that sixth stock car racing title in Sunday's 400-miler at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET).
Yes, Johnson need only finish 23rd or better to earn the Sprint Cup trophy.
But, yes, Johnson's last two runs here finishing poorly -- 32nd and 36th.
And over his 12-year Cup career Johnson's finishing average at this 1-1/2-mile track is a rather mediocre 15.3, no wins. though he does have two poles.
Of course virtually every time Johnson has come here, he's had the championship in his eyes, rather than a season-ending victory. In those successful championship runs, Johnson finished 2nd (2010), 5th, 15th, 7th and 9th.
With nine winners in 14 races, this track is not that predictable, not just because the championship skews everything but because this NASCAR season is so darned long, and because typically a number of crewmen and drivers are looking at/for new jobs.
Johnson has two ways to look at this thing: One, he's got a lead in the standings that he can go for the win, and take the title in a righteous way. Or two, he can play it conservatively, keeping an eye on Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick, the only two men with any mathematical shot at the upset.
Chad Knaus: no plans to quit any time soon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Knaus, Johnson's signal caller throughout his career, seems serenely comfortable with these few days:
"We're just going to have to see how it all unfolds. We're not dumb. We try to be fairly intelligent and understand all circumstances, and we understand there are two cars we're racing, Matt and Kevin. That's really where our main focus has to be.
"But we also know if we go out there and lead laps and can battle for the victory, we're going to ultimately beat those guys. That's kind of our plan -- see if we can close it out big."
Kenseth and Harvick are so far behind now they really have nothing to lose, except second place in the final standings.
And if numbers bear out, Harvick should catch Kenseth for the runner-up spot. They're only six points apart.
Only one man has a better finishing record overall here than Harvick (7.9), and that's Carl Edwards (6.0).
Kenseth, who in fact may have lost the championship when he lost momentum at Texas two weeks ago, doesn't have a very good finishing average here, 17.615, with one win (2007).
Still Kenseth says he's enjoyed this career-best season. He's won seven times, more than anyone else.
And if just comparing finishing records over just the past eight years: Edwards' average is a sizzling 5.0, Martin Truex Jr.'s 6.7, Harvick's 7.0, and Kenseth's is a much better 9.9...to Johnson's
Logically Sunday's winner should be one of those four.
Matt Kenseth's best season ever....and not a bad rookie season for crew chief Jason Ratcliff (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So, with 10, 286 laps behind them this season, and only 267 yet to run, is it too early to start thinking about 2014?
If Johnson and Knaus do take this title, it will be their six in the past eight years.
Is there any hope to stop this machine next season?
"I don't think it would anyone, that would go on to win another championship, and again be the benchmark everyone has to beat next season," Jason Ratcliff says.
"It wouldn't surprise me at all."
Kenseth and Ratcliff, his crew chief, sure had Johnson's number most of the season, right till the last two weeks.
And their Phoenix collapse is still difficult to understand.
"There's no way that a disappointment like we had at Phoenix is going to overshadow all the accomplishments and the great season that we've had this year," Ratcliff says.
Meanwhile, any rivals hoping to see Knaus move to a new job, well, keep hoping.
He expects to keep running the Johnson-Rick Hendrick team "for a while yet.
"We're definitely in a very comfortable environment. There are good opportunities for us to win a lot of races and battle for championships.
"If things continue the way they are, we should be able to stay together for a few more years yet."
What might life after Jimmie Johnson be like for Knaus?
"I don't know what the next step is," Knaus says with a laugh. "Mr. Hendrick doesn't give me enough time off work to think about anything other than racing.
"I don't know if there is another one.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. One day we'll wake up and I'll probably just check out and be gone.
"But right now I really enjoy what I'm doing."
Jimmie Johnson (48) and Brad Keselowski (Lite) put on quite a show one year ago at Homestead...(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The year in review?
-- Well, well-hyped Danica Patrick underperformed, to say the least. After winning the pole at Daytona for the season opener, things have gone downhill, in this her rookie season. She has been a consistent 30th place qualifier and consistent 26th place finisher, little more.
-- Kyle Busch again failed to make a strong enough bid for the championship. That crash at Kansas in Round Three of the playoffs all but took him out of the game; mediocre runs at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix clinched the deal. In his last six races Busch has led only 28 laps, off the pace for a man who is one of the year's top three lap leaders.
-- Brad Keselowski, last year's champ, failed even to make the playoffs this time, and his season was forgettable.
-- Mark Martin, legendary and ageless, has had a sluggish season, and this may be his last as a tour regular. He finished third in the Daytona 500, but after that things didn't go so well, either with Michael Waltrip's Toyota team or with Tony Stewart's Chevy team.
-- NASCAR on TV?
ESPN's Phoenix 500K earned a 2.7 US household rating, averaging 4,271,141 viewers. That's a bit lower than last year's 2.8 rating.
Still, of the eight playoff races run as scheduled (Chicago was rain-delayed), six had a ratings bump from last season.
NASCAR's Nationwide tour continues to be something of an enigma, as the sanctioning body looks for a new series sponsor. The Saturday races, though, typically more exciting than Sunday's fare, continue to generate only a bit over 1 million viewers, with a 1.0 rating that has remained fairly steady for years now.
-- And a footnote, from Travis Pastrana's Facebook page:
He's quitting NASCAR and apparently going back to his Nitro Circus world.s
"This past season of NASCAR has been an awesome experience. I have made a lot of great friends, had a lot of fun and gained a new appreciation for all aspects of this sport. Jack Roush and everyone at Roush Fenway Racing have gone above and beyond to try and help me succeed and I am truly grateful for their support. I would like to thank them and all of the other people who stuck behind me during the last two years as I tried to learn how to make a successful career in NASCAR.
"It's tough to step back now and prove the critics were right, but unfortunately my results were not good enough to get the sponsors I needed to appropriately fund next season.
"My wife Lyn-z has been more then supportive of my foray into NASCAR, often times being my biggest source of encouragement and support. But as my wife had to take a step back from being a professional skater to let me chase my goals in racing, I too need to take a step back and look at my situation as a father and husband.
"The NASCAR schedule is grueling and takes enormous sacrifices from those you love to make work. With a lack of funding next year, now is my opportunity to sit back and offer support as she chases her goals.
"I hate to quit and I hate to fail, but sometimes things work out as they should. I've never been able to figure out the finesse required in pavement racing and that is disappointing. But I'm looking forward to driving more rally and racing more off-road trucks, and there will be some announcements on those fronts shortly!
"My wife is excited to get back to skating on the Nitro Circus Live Tour, and I'm excited to spend some quality time with my girls.
"Thank you to all my fans for the support, and I hope to see each of you at an event in the near future."
Travis Pastrana: not enough success to pull in enough sponsor to continue, so he's leaving NASCAR (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)