Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - With the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup now at its halfway point, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are running side-by-side for the championship points lead.
Kenseth began the Chase three points ahead of Johnson. Their separation is now four points.
After winning the first two Chase races (Chicagoland and New Hampshire), Kenseth held a 14-point lead over Kyle Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, and an 18-point advantage over Johnson. But Johnson won at Dover and trimmed Kenseth's lead to eight.
Earlier this month, Johnson's sixth-place run coupled with an 11th-place finish for Kenseth at Kansas put Johnson back to where he started the Chase, three points behind. Kenseth finished third and Johnson fourth this past Saturday at Charlotte.
The Chase moves on to Talladega, which is considered the "wild card" race in the playoffs. The unpredictable can happen at Talladega, including the big wreck or wrecks. One thing is for sure, Kenseth, Johnson and the other Chase drivers will be able to breathe a little easier once Sunday's race there is completed.
"We made it through the first half good and maintained a very small lead, so that's better than being behind," Kenseth said. "We'll go to Talladega and race hard. Hopefully, our car will have some speed there, and we'll be able to hang up front somewhere."
Johnson won a record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006-10 but has come up short of capturing his sixth title the past two years.
Last season, Brad Keselowski and Johnson were the only drivers who led in the point standings during the Chase. Johnson took over the top spot after winning at Texas but took a big hit in points the following week at Phoenix, where he finished 32nd after being involved in a late-race accident. He placed 36th in the season finale at Homestead and ended the year third in the rankings. Keselowski went on to claim the championship.
Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are very optimistic about winning a sixth championship this year.
"I do feel very good about our chances," Johnson said. "Post-Talladega, depending on how things play out there, we'll see where we stand. But the only thing I can do right now is look back on the races we've had and think what points we've left on the table. And there really aren't many that we've left behind. We've been very consistent, and we've been competitive. We've won a race. I feel good with that. I know if we keep this pace up, we'll definitely be a contender come Homestead."
Prior to the start of the Chase, Johnson had been in the biggest slump of his Cup career. He had finished 28th or worse in the final four races of the regular season. Johnson held a 75-point lead after the Aug. 18 event at Michigan, but his advantage evaporated quickly, as he concluded the regular season one point behind Carl Edwards, who won at Richmond.
"I honestly and genuinely felt like we had a great chance to win the championship when all that was going on," Johnson said. "When you have a new stat of your four or five worst races ever in the history of a team, it's not anything to be proud of. There was a bit of, I don't know exactly what to call it, stress or frustration, that went with that. But we genuinely knew that we would be fine once the Chase started and got back to our tracks, good tracks, and had a little luck turn around for us."
In last year's Chase race at Talladega, Johnson was one of those caught up in a 25-car accident that occurred on the final lap. Johnson came to Talladega five points behind Keselowski, but after finishing 17th there, he fell 14 points out of the lead. Kenseth, who was in his final year with Roush Fenway Racing, won the race.
Kenseth has had a remarkable first season with JGR. He leads the series with seven wins this season. Kenseth is attempting to win his second Cup title. His first championship came in 2003, the year before NASCAR instituted a playoff format for its top series.
"I feel like you've got to be able to run in the top five every week to have a shot at this deal," Kenseth said. "I know you're not going to finish there every week, but I think you have to be good enough to finish there every week and not make mistakes and, hopefully, get good finishes."
While Kenseth and Johnson are the front-runners, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Busch are not too far behind in the Chase battle. Harvick, who won at Kansas, is 29 points behind. Gordon trails by 36 points, and Busch is 37 out of the lead.
After Talladega, the series will head to Martinsville, which is the only short-track race in the Chase. Two 1.5-mile tracks (Texas and Homestead) and a 1-mile track (Phoenix) follow Martinsville.
The Chase began amid controversy, as NASCAR had severely penalized Michael Waltrip Racing for manipulating the outcome of the Sept. 7 race at Richmond, in an attempt to get Martin Truex Jr. into the playoffs. NASCAR also took action against Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports in their efforts to help Joey Logano make it into the Chase.
In a season filled with one major story line after another, who knows what might happen in the Chase during these next five weeks.
"I'm sure there will be something to talk about once we get to Homestead," Johnson said.