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Even closer than he appears

Johnson confident even with Kenseth in rearview mirror

Jimmie Johnson leads the Sprint Cup standings by seven points over Matt Kenseth with two races left in the season. Johnson is looking for his sixth points championship.
Jimmie Johnson leads the Sprint Cup standings by seven points over Matt Kenseth with two races left in the season. Johnson is looking for his sixth points championship.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Just like last season, Jimmie Johnson enters the next-to-last race with a seven-point lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

He came up empty in his bid for a sixth title last year, but is more confident about his chances following Sunday's dominating victory at Texas.

With Matt Kenseth in his rearview mirror, that could be a false sense of security.

Johnson lost the title a year ago to Brad Keselowski, who didn't flinch during his first title fight.

He went toe-to-toe with the most dominant driver of his generation, and he and Johnson swapped the lead four times in the waning laps at Texas. Johnson won the race, Keselowski finished second and Johnson left with a seven-point lead in the standings as they headed into Phoenix, one of Keselowski's worst tracks on the tour.

But Johnson had a tire failure in Phoenix, and Keselowski finished sixth. Then a mechanical problem for Johnson at Homestead sealed Keselowski's first championship.

The chances of back-to-back meltdowns for Johnson again this year are pretty slim. And after Sunday's rout in Texas, Johnson is cruising into Phoenix feeling far better than he did a year ago.

"I'm optimistic. I feel good," he said. "But, man, 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 5 years in a row. There were other years where I had those feelings, and it didn't happen. Last year was another good example of us taking control late in the Chase, and then that ended with two bad races.

"I guess the lesson in all of that is I'm not counting on anything. I'm going to work real hard and train my butt off. Stay in this little world that I've been living in for the last 5 or 6 months and show up ready to go these next 2 weeks."

That would be the smart play because Kenseth is not Keselowski.

"I think we were in great shape last year," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "I think we're in as good or maybe just a pinch better shape this year, though I do feel the opponent is a little more formidable than what we had last year."

Kenseth has been on this stage before. He won the championship in 2003, under the old format when points were collected over an entire season.

The Chase was born the next season, and Kenseth raced for the title in year 3, when Johnson finally claimed his first championship. Kenseth finished second in 2006 and Johnson began his tear of a record five consecutive championships.

There were some lean seasons along the way for Kenseth, who parted with longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser at the end of 2007 and promptly went winless in 2008. He opened 2009 with back-to-back wins, yet still missed the Chase and finished 14th in the final standings.

Kenseth was winless again in 2010, but had his second Daytona 500 victory in 2012. But by the middle of that year, he had decided to move to Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season after 13 seasons with Jack Roush.

Seven wins later, he's breathing down Johnson's neck in a two-driver race for the Sprint Cup title that has the No. 48 team on its toes.

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