Clean and fast for the title

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Maybe because it's lacking the edgy personality of a guy like Brad Keselowski, the battle for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship lacks the underlying tension of last year's title tilt.

Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth are separated by just seven points with two races to run, but there's no bad blood between the two rivals.

You won't catch either man uttering a bad word about the other, whether on or off the record. Controversy is pretty much verboten in both of their playbooks.

They arrived in the Cup Series within a couple years of each other, and over the past 10 years, established themselves as two of the best stock car racers of their generation.

They have similar styles on the racetrack and similar personalities off. Neither man is likely to wreck another on the pavement, nor wreak havoc in the press.

The bottom line is that while Kenseth and Johnson are fighting each other for the most prestigious title in American auto racing, they remain firm friends once the engines are shut down. And that friendship isn't going away, no matter what happens between them in the next 10 days.

"We've known each other for a long time now, and it seems like we've been able to get along from the beginning," Johnson said Friday morning, prior to practice for the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. "There were a few bumpy episodes back in the Nationwide Series when I was the slow guy in the way. He used me up a couple times and I like to harass him about that.

"But we've had a great time, really since his [2003 Cup Series] championship," JJ added. "When we got home, my wife and I drove over to his house to have a beer with him and Katie and his team. From that point forward, we've really had a strong friendship."

Kenseth concurred with his rival's assessment of their friendship. "I think that we've always had a good relationship and it's probably gotten better over the years," he said. "I think maybe we have different interests as far as what we like and what we don't like away from the racetrack, but our relationship is probably better right now than it's ever been. I like having friends more than I like having enemies, so that's good.

"But I don't think it makes any difference. The guys I get along with the best off the racetrack, I want to beat them just as bad as the guy I get along with the least. Once they throw the green, they're all cars that you want to beat and finish in front of. You realize that to win the race, you have to figure out how to beat them all."

Johnson drew first blood at Phoenix, making the most of an advantageous late qualifying draw to claim pole position with a track-record lap. Kenseth, who was the fourth driver out to qualify, will line up 14th for Sunday's race (3 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN).

Jeff Burton, one of the most experienced drivers in the Sprint Cup Series garage and a teammate of Kenseth's when they were both at Roush Racing, is well placed to compare and contrast the two championship contenders.

"They are a lot alike -- very similar in how they race," Burton said. "They are both quietly aggressive. They're both aggressive drivers, but they don't do it by running into you. They do it by driving into the corner a little deeper than perhaps they should to get that position.

"They are both clean drivers, both very committed to the sport," Burton continued. "They are both good people with values that you can be proud of. They are the kind of people that when they win championships you are proud that they represent the sport."

Johnson believes that while he and Kenseth have similar styles of racing, their mental approach is somewhat different.

"There are differences between us, for sure," said the five-time Sprint Cup champion. "With all the years he spent in stock cars, he's much more mechanically inclined on the race car, and understanding the particulars of the chassis and vehicle dynamics and all that stuff. But I feel like we're both big-picture thinkers inside the race car, understanding the flow of a race and the flow of the Chase, or the year. It's just a broader vision, whether it's racing someone in traffic or not letting a mistake get to you and destroy your whole race. We both find a way to be there at the end."

There's no question that at age 41, the move from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing this year has revitalized Kenseth's career. With a career-high seven race wins, it's been a season that the Wisconsin native can savor, whether he wins or loses in the championship battle.

"I think this move to Gibbs is just showing Matt's talent and how good that team is," offered four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon. "He's kind of an under-the-radar kind of guy, but I think he likes it that way.

"Maybe this year is a little bit of a surprise, just because they're new together," Gordon added. "But it's not so much of a surprise, in my opinion, from what Matt is capable of. He's a great race car driver."

From Kenseth's perspective, nothing has changed this year except for his team affiliation and car number. But deep down he knows that beating Johnson, the man acknowledged as the supreme driver during NASCAR's Chase era, would make a second Cup Series title even sweeter.

"I don't really feel like I'm a different driver than I have been in the past," Kenseth said. "There are certain things that maybe fit your style in a car, or the way you go about things that will maybe make you look like a better driver. It always looks like you're a better driver when your car is fast.

"You would like to feel like you improve and you get better and smarter through the years, but I don't feel like I'm all that different."

Kevin Harvick, who ranks third in the Sprint Cup standings and still has a remote shot at the championship, says it's almost impossible to predict who will prevail if it ends up being a two-man fight for the title at Phoenix and Homestead.

"It's a crapshoot at this point," was Harvick's assessment. "You look at it and say Jimmie is absolutely going to annihilate Matt at Martinsville, and Matt goes out and leads the most laps and has a chance to win the race. Then about the time that you think that Jimmie hasn't won a race on a 1.5-mile racetrack all year, he goes out and just absolutely crushes everybody at Texas.

"So it's just a matter of who hits it on a particular weekend. Obviously this racetrack can play a lot of havoc on track position; things happen and you can get caught up in something, but I think performancewise, it's a draw at this point."

Kenseth was never traditionally strong at Martinsville, yet he was in position to win the fall race this year until he was overtaken near the end by eventual winner Gordon. Phoenix and Homestead haven't always been good tracks for Kenseth either, but neither he nor Johnson will base their outlook for this weekend on what has happened at Phoenix in the past.

"I don't know how much the past has to do with today, tomorrow or Sunday, honestly," Kenseth said. "A lot of things that are different. I would feel better if we were leading [the point standings], but I'm looking forward to this weekend. We had a good run here in the spring -- it was my first race with this team, really besides plate racing. We had a really competitive car and we've been good at these kind of tracks."

"I don't know if the numbers mean much, especially in championship battles," noted Johnson. "At Martinsville, where the numbers skewed my way, Matt came out with more points. Here, we've had some good success, but I can't rely on that. It's all in the past.

"Statistics are a great reference, but the past is the past and it's all about today and this weekend. Now that he's in the 20 car, you can't look at stats from when he was in the 17. There's been quite a big improvement on a lot of racetracks for him."

Whoever prevails, this has been one of the more compelling championship battles during NASCAR's Chase era. Johnson and Kenseth have both performed at an extremely high level during the Chase, and neither will have anything to be ashamed of if he fails to come out on top.

"No matter how it ends up, it's been a great season, absolutely," Kenseth said. "But it's funny how your views and your goals and what you want to accomplish change. It's kind of a moving target. If you don't end up winning the championship, it's hard to not be just a little bit disappointed when you're in that spot because you just don't get that many opportunities to win it.

"For sure, no matter how it ends up the next two weeks, it has been an unbelievable year."