Jimmie Johnson and his closest challenger in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Matt Kenseth, talk in the garage area during practice. (Jeff Zelevansky / Getty Images)
Fort Worth, Texas — Those expecting a vicious, punt-him-into-the-seats one-on-one match in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup AAA Texas 500 Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway should be forewarned.
Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, the Chase co-leaders, do not play that way.
They like each other and more importantly respect each other. Johnson and Kenseth go at each other as hard as possible, secure in the knowledge the other guy will not do something irresponsible.
"We have all grown up and changed through the years," Johnson said. "I think that especially racing Matt. He understands the big picture, how to race, when to race, what to do."
Said Kenseth: "People can say whatever they want about Jimmie, but I don't know how you can't say that he's the best ever."
The mutual affection does not preclude gripping racing. Kenseth and Johnson understand where the line is between driving to win and recklessness. They are far more reserved than volatile fellow Cup racers such as Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart, but they also will not back away from a challenge.
Flash back to the fall Cup race at TMS in 2007 for proof. Johnson and Kenseth produced the best race in track history with a memorable duel that is still talked about in racing circles.
Kenseth took the lead in a restart on Lap 305. Johnson moved from fifth to second in eight laps, starting the duel.
For the next 19 laps, they raced side by side at 190 mph. They touched at least once and went sideways several times coming out of the corners. They finished two laps dead-even, according to the computerized scoring system.
Rick Hendrick, whose team included Johnson, was nervous throughout. Kenseth was out of title contention and had nothing to lose, but a wreck would have ruined Johnson's chances for the championship.
Johnson knew that but never backed down, because he knew Kenseth would run a clean race. Johnson, without a hint of damage on his car, pulled away with two laps remaining and went on to win the second of his five consecutive Cup championships.
"We put on a heck of a show," Johnson said. "Both of us are sideways, just driving the wheels off the cars. From my standpoint, it was an amazing race.
"I knew second would be OK, but that is just not in my DNA. We had an opportunity to win, and I also had confidence in Matt that we would race. (We) wouldn't cross that line and were able to push and put on a great show."
This is the first time the Cup competition has been tied with three races to go since at least 1975. Race-by-race standings before that are not available. In 1996, Jeff Gordon led Terry Labonte by one point with three races remaining.
Edwards wins pole
Johnson qualified third for Sunday’s Sprint Cup race, one row ahead of Kenseth.
Carl Edwards starts on the pole after a qualifying lap of 196.114 mph.
Brad Keselowski (Rochester Hills) starts on the front row after a fast lap of 196.100 mph, just ahead of Johnson’s 195.943 mph. Kenseth qualified sixth.
Ty Dillon led 130 of the 147 laps for a dominating victory in the NASCAR Truck Series race at Texas.