Updated: November 11, 2013, 2:27 PM ET

Kevin Harvick Rises At Phoenix

Sprint Cup: Johnson saves his season -- twice

By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

What could keep Jimmie Johnson from winning a sixth Cup? What could happen to him at Homestead-Miami next Sunday?

Well, let's see ...

He could wreck just seconds after the start of the race, as he almost did Sunday at Phoenix.

But he didn't.

He could wreck midrace, just as he almost did Sunday.

But he didn't.

And he won't.

Why?

Dirt.

"I really had to fall back on my dirt-driving skills, racing out here in the desert all the years that I did," Johnson told ESPN reporters at the track, regarding two instances of contact Sunday that he had to drive his way out of. "Both of those were close."

Johnson-Kenseth
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson takes a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth into Sunday's Sprint Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

As it was, Johnson finished third Sunday to Matt Kenseth's 23rd, ballooning Johnson's points lead from seven to 28 going into the season finale.

Johnson's uncanny car control, which has gotten him out of many a jam in NASCAR, comes from his years of racing motorcycles and off-road vehicles. The late Dale Earnhardt was the only other Cup driver who could make his car behave almost as an appendage, and he too came up on dirt, on the short tracks of the Carolinas.

When you've learned on dirt, learned to be comfortable sideways, then you just don't panic when you get sideways on pavement. You just drive out of it.

Race winner Kevin Harvick moved to within 34 points of Johnson in the Chase standings. But he and Kenseth both would need a really bad day for Johnson at Homestead to have any hope of snatching the Cup from his grasp.

Other than wrecking, well, Johnson could fall out with an engine failure. But he has lost only one engine all season, in August at Michigan.

Or he simply could have a very bad day with an ill-handling car, as Kenseth did at Phoenix Sunday.

But Johnson needs to finish only 23rd or better at Homestead, meaning he could have just as bad a day there as Kenseth had at Phoenix and still win the Cup. And Johnson has finished worse than 23rd only five times in 35 races this year.

No wreck, no engine failure and just a decent-handling car would add up to a sixth title, putting Johnson near Earnhardt and Richard Petty, who each won seven championships.

If Johnson were going to falter, Phoenix, where he faltered last year, would seem to be the prime place.

And twice Sunday, he looked very close to faltering.

Starting on the pole, he got loose and made contact with Joey Logano moments after the green flag, and dropped back to sixth. But he saved the car.

Then, just past the halfway point, Johnson made contact with Carl Edwards and got loose after Harvick made it three wide.

"The one with the 22 [Logano] didn't worry me too much," Johnson said of the start.

"But the one with the 99 [Edwards], at two different points as I saved it, the car pointed back at the fence, and I thought I was going to hit it."

Johnson fell back to 26th, but "I got it gathered up and got back going."

But Harvick had a stronger car and grabbed the lead on the last lap when Edwards ran out of fuel. The win was Harvick's fourth this season, his second in this Chase, and moved him within mathematical striking distance of Johnson next Sunday.

"That's all you can ask for, is to be in it," Harvick said in Victory Lane. "Obviously a lot has to happen. But a lot CAN happen."

Yeah, well, maybe. Kenseth isn't counting on that.

"We basically go there [Homestead] without a shot to win," he said.

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