Commentary

Kenseth, Johnson hard to catch

Updated: November 2, 2013, 3:57 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Sunday's AAA Texas 500 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN & WatchESPN) could bunch up this Chase in a hurry, Kyle Busch figures. Yeah, right, he knows.

You might say that realistically there are still five hopefuls to win the NASCAR championship -- but really, really, really realistically, there are only two, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. So says the fifth-place driver, Busch, as well as third-place Jeff Gordon.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have plenty to talk about these days.

"If you have bad luck [happen] with the front two, then that's going to bring five guys back into it," Busch said Friday, still including Kenseth and Johnson, plus himself, Gordon and fourth-place Kevin Harvick. "It's going to be an even tighter race. That's what the fans want to see, probably what the media wants to see, and what I want to see … .

"But I bet you the front two don't."

"One of them potentially having an issue is possible, but both of them -- I think that [cuts] the percentages down even more," Gordon said.

Because only three races remain -- here, Phoenix next week and Homestead-Miami on Nov. 17 -- the window for stumbling by Kenseth and Johnson is narrowing, and mere winning by the other three just doesn't change the picture much.

A win last week at Martinsville, Va., brought Gordon suddenly back into the conversation, but "still, we really didn't gain that much on those guys," he said. "They're very solid teams, solid drivers; they run good everywhere, and I expect them to run good these remaining three races, as well."

The top two are tied in points, but Kenseth leads the tiebreaker, wins, with seven this season to Johnson's five. Gordon is 27 points back, Harvick 28 and Busch 36. But Harvick is considered largely out of the hunt because his lame-duck relationship with team owner Richard Childress has been deteriorating so rapidly.

Sure, Kenseth and Johnson were talking their polite, cautious talk Friday.

"I'd be more happy if we were the leader and it was three-and-a-half weeks from now," Kenseth said. "We still have three races to go. Glad we're still in it."

"It's definitely a tense period of time," Johnson said. "It's not over yet. There's still a lot to go. It's going to be this way to the end."

But really, the two seemed to be referring to each other.

Their duel "is awesome to see," Busch said. "Certainly, it's pretty impressive because they both are running top five every single week and they're running around each other every single week. It's a dogfight, for sure.

"It's interesting to watch because you look for one of them to feel the pressure and stumble a little bit, but so far they haven't," Busch continued. "You come to places like Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. I think two of the five guys you look at winning those races are the two top guys going for the points championship right now.

"It's mano a mano here for the next three," Busch said.

That means "hand to hand" (Kenseth's to Johnson's) translated from the Spanish. But somehow in popular culture the phrase has come to imply "man to man" -- still Kenseth to Johnson.

One hurdle cleared by the front-runners came at Talladega -- where big pileups often shake up the Chase standings -- two weeks ago.

There, "there wasn't a big one that got any championship contenders," Busch said, "but that's where you try to make up ground when you can. When some of those guys have a bad day and you don't, that's when you try to make up ground, and nobody really did anything … "

And now, with no restrictor-plate races left, only the 1.5-mile tracks where Kenseth and Johnson have long been strong, "making up 27 points on Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, that is definitely a big challenge," Gordon said. "And at this point I don't think we're really focused on that gap. We're really just focused on doing our jobs.

"Realistically, we know that unless those guys have a couple of bumps in the road, we're probably not going to make those points up on them in three weeks," Gordon said.

For the others to get closer, they badly need to do so Sunday, or fade for keeps.

"It's hard to make up more than 10 points on either one of those guys in a single race," Gordon said, "so I would think that you'd need to be within 10 or 12 points at Homestead."

So he and Busch would have to take big bites here and at Phoenix.

But, "those guys make very few mistakes," Gordon said. "We're not expecting anything [bad] out of them this week, next week or the week after that."

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