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Wednesday, November 6, 2013
It's a two-car race for the Chase

By Ricky Craven
ESPN

Editor's note: For an explanation of the Rule of 72, click here.

As the Chase for the Sprint Cup enters its final two weeks, four drivers are still alive under the Rule of 72. But everything points to one of two drivers -- Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth -- raising the championship trophy at Homestead-Miami.

Kyle Busch has 69 points in the Rule of 72 and mathematically still has a chance, but his odds border on unreasonable. His demise in the Chase really comes down to two races -- Kansas, where he finished 34th as the result of a wreck, and Texas, where he took a pit road speeding penalty under a green flag on his final stop of the day.

Busch is an excellent driver, but he still has room to grow when it comes to managing the Chase. Having said that, 2013 was the best I've seen of him in NASCAR's playoffs. What's missing is that Busch didn't win a Chase race this year. In fact, Busch hasn't won a Chase race as a playoff driver. Wins in the Chase are critical to offset the bad days. But if you're going to be a championship driver, the bad days have to be finishing 15th, not 34th. Busch came into Kansas with finishes of second, second and fifth. He simply needed to manage that race better.

Kevin Harvick, who finished eighth at Texas, has 56 points in the Rule of 72 and is 40 points behind Johnson in the Chase standings. He's still in contention, but he needs Kenseth and Johnson to stumble, which is highly unlikely with two races remaining. Harvick has done a good job in this year's Chase, but the missing link for him has been a lack of top-five finishes. Through eight playoff races, Harvick has a win and one other top-five finish. By comparison, Johnson has six top-five finishes and Kenseth has five.

Speaking of Johnson, he leads the Sprint Cup standings by seven points, and his Rule of 72 score, including bonus points, stands at 27. He and Kenseth, with 34 points in the Rule of 72, have both done an outstanding job.

But the difference between Johnson and Kenseth in the standings could be simplified by looking at the Talladega Chase race, where Johnson finished 13th and Kenseth finished 20th.

It might be a little frustrating for Kenseth to think about what could have been at Talladega, considering how good he is at restrictor-plate tracks and that he led 32 laps. But neither Kenseth nor Johnson has time to look in the rearview mirror. This is now a two-race season.

Kenseth hasn't been as strong as Johnson at Phoenix. Statistically, the one-mile track wouldn't be considered one of his favorites. But stats or history haven't seemed to mean a lot for Kenseth in this year's Chase. Kenseth had never won a race at New Hampshire until six races ago, when he got his second win of the Chase. And there's no track in the Sprint Cup Series more similar to Phoenix than New Hampshire. I expect Kenseth will bring the same car he drove to victory in the Granite State, in which case he will carry a little extra confidence with him.

Kenseth appeared outmatched by Johnson, at least statistically, when the Chase arrived at Martinsville a few weeks ago. Johnson finished fifth with a solid performance, but it was Kenseth who stole the day, leading late and finishing second. The point is this: Expect it when you least expect it from Matt Kenseth. He's an outstanding driver and a former champion, and his seven wins this season are evidence that Johnson will have his hands full all the way to the checkered flag in Miami.

Johnson, on the other hand, has been very strong at Phoenix, winning four races, but those wins came on the track's old configuration. The new configuration, which added progressive banking and altered the dogleg on the back stretch, hasn't been as rewarding for Johnson. It was last year's Chase race at Phoenix, after all, where a blown front tire on the No. 48 car set the stage for Brad Keselowski to deny Johnson his sixth series title.

But, after seeing Johnson dominate last week's race in Texas, I expect him to pick up where he left off, qualify well, run among the leaders and contend for a win. A victory, or any finish ahead of Kenseth, would give Johnson a more comfortable cushion and put the majority of the pressure on Kenseth at Miami.

At this point, I give Johnson a 60 percent chance of winning his sixth title. But those odds undoubtedly will change after this race. There is a percentage of this sport drivers simply cannot control -- for example, a mechanical failure or a caution flag late in a race. But in the things they can control, Johnson and Kenseth have demonstrated in the first eight races of the Chase that they are worthy of a championship.