Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Jimmie Johnson has a seven-point lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings after winning Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Gee, is this the same story line with just two races left in the Chase as it was one year ago?
Yep. But Johnson is hoping his outcome in this year's playoffs will be much better than it was in 2012.
When Johnson won last year's Chase race at Texas, he increased his lead from two points to seven over then championship rival Brad Keselowski, who finished second in that event. Johnson headed into the final two races -- Phoenix and Homestead -- poised to win his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship. His five titles came consecutively from 2006-10.
But Johnson's championship bid took a big hit at Phoenix, where he blew a tire and made contact with the wall, damaging the front suspension of his car. He returned later before finishing 32nd. Keselowski placed sixth and took a 20- point lead.
"I feel better about Phoenix, honestly, than I did last year leaving (Texas)," Johnson said. "I know when I go to Phoenix the balance of the car and what I had felt last year led to a blown right-front tire. So we'll show up there and make sure that from my standpoint and what I feel and what (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) sees with tire pressures and temps and the overall balance of the car that we don't overwork that right-front tire."
Johnson had another misfortune in the season finale at Homestead. His rear gear burned up, which put him out of the race 40 laps short of the finish and gave him a 36th-place result. Keselowski ended the year 39 points ahead of runner-up Clint Bowyer, while Johnson's season concluded 40 points behind.
"We just came back from Homestead, and that test (last week) went really well," Johnson said. "So I'm optimistic. I feel good. But it's so weird because I've been in position before where I've had these amazing sensations and feelings that a championship was going to happen, and we were able to do it for those five years in a row."
Matt Kenseth and Johnson were tied for the points lead when the series came to Texas. Kenseth had been atop the standings for the first five Chase races, but his 20th-place finish at Talladega put him four points in back of Johnson.
At Martinsville, Kenseth finished second and Johnson fifth, which put them neck and neck in their battle for the championship. After finishing fourth at Texas, Kenseth is now faced with his largest points deficit in the Chase.
But Kenseth is not too worried about it.
"It's not insurmountable," Kenseth said of Johnson's points lead. "It's still in our hands. If we go out there and can out run everybody for two weeks, then it's ours. We just go with that mind-set, and we're still in this thing after eight weeks. We're going to go try to get it."
In August, it looked as though Johnson would be the clear favorite to win the championship, as he held a 75-point lead at one point. But Johnson struggled in the last four races of the regular season -- Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. Nobody on his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team was overly concerned heading into the Chase, not even team owner Rick Hendrick.
"I think Jimmie has been very confident, but nobody has said he was unbeatable this year," Hendrick said. "Matt has been right there the whole year."
Kenseth grabbed the top seed for the Chase by virtue of his most wins during the regular season. Johnson started in the second seed (three points behind).
"As the 48 (Johnson) has proven time and time again, if you're going to win a championship, then you have to win races and you have to go through him," Kenseth said.
Texas marked the sixth win of the season for Johnson but his first at a 1.5- mile track this year. Johnson leads all drivers with four victories at Phoenix, which is one mile in length. Homestead, a mile-and-a-half track, is where Johnson has yet to win.
Four of Kenseth's series-leading seven victories this season have come at 1.5- mile tracks. His second win in the Chase occurred at New Hampshire, which is similar in size to Phoenix.
"At this point of the season, if you're in contention, you've got more pressure than you ever wanted to you. It's just there," Johnson said.
Johnson does have an advantage there. He's been in this pressure situation a lot more times than Kenseth.