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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – There was no trash talking, no attempts at mind games. If there was tension or nerves, nobody could tell.
In one of the tamest NASCAR title contenders' news conferences in recent memory, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick kept it light and breezy as they discussed their championship chances against Jimmie Johnson.
"Maybe because he's ahead by 28 points?" Kenseth said. "If he was building his own engine, I'd be messing with him right now."
Alas, Johnson won't be building his own engine for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he needs only to finish 23rd or better to win his sixth Sprint Cup title. For Johnson, who has a 4.66 average finish through the first nine Chase races, it's an easy Sunday drive.
"I think Jimmie could run (23rd) through the grass or with three wheels," Kenseth said. "He's going to have to have a mechanical problem or crash to make something happen."
But nothing is a given in auto racing, as Johnson learned last year as he raced Brad Keselowski for the title.
Johnson went in to the penultimate race with a seven-point lead in the standings only to suffer a tire failure at Phoenix. It gave Keselowski a slight lead going into the finale, but Johnson had a mechanical failure that handed Keselowski his first championship.
Johnson, who reeled off a record five titles from 2006 through 2010, came up empty for a second consecutive year.
"Last year was a good lesson for me, and I think I'm carrying some of that experience now in dealing with this," Johnson said. "We felt like things were going our way, we have the points lead, we go to Phoenix, the wheels fall off, literally."
Tony Stewart tells a story from one of his sprint car championships when he went into the finale third in the standings with only a mathematical chance at winning the title. The driver second in the standings broke an oil filter early and blew up, then Stewart passed the points leader during the race, circled back around to the spot of the pass and saw the leader had crashed.
"I'm like, 'Oh my God, did I do that?' Couldn't have done it, it was the guy right behind me who had contact with him and took him out," Stewart said. "I ran second in the race and won the championship. I won the driver's championship by one point and the owner's by two points. We were just mathematically in it. I'm telling you, if you mathematically have a shot, then you are not out of it."
Harvick has heard that story several times from Stewart, and put himself in position to race for the championship by never conceding anything. He picked up his fourth win of the season on Sunday at Phoenix when leader Carl Edwards ran out of gas coming to the white flag, and Harvick sailed by for the victory. It cut Harvick's deficit to Johnson to 34 points
It's not the first time Harvick won a race by being in the right place at the right time — something team owner Richard Childress taught him as a rookie.
"You just have to go and control the things you can control because anything can happen at any particular point," Harvick said. "That's one thing that Richard has always stressed from the beginning — don't ever quit or give up until it's actually over. Never concede early because you just never know."
That's the same attitude Kenseth will take into Sunday's finale even though he likely saw the championship slip away last week at Phoenix. Trailing by just seven points headed into Phoenix, he had the worst race of his season and lost 21 points to Johnson.
Although he gave what seemed to be a concession speech after the race, Kenseth said Thursday he's not waving the white flag.
"I actually still have more hope than you'd probably think I would," Kenseth said. "I mean, anything can happen. There's a lot of things in these cars. They're mechanical, you never know when you're going to have a flat tire or something go wrong or something break. You don't wish that on anybody, but you just don't know what's going to happen out there.
"We're going to go with the idea of trying to win the race, finish as high as we can and be there in case something does happen."