Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth say they’re not into psychological games, that they’re not trying to get in the other’s head.
That’s what they say.
They seem to be doing something different.
In their subtle, understated ways, the veteran drivers are trying to apply pressure on each other as the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship rolls into its final three races, starting with Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
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They’ll make sure they walk by each other after interviews. Johnson will kiddingly hand his Gatorade bottle to Kenseth. Kenseth will send a text telling Johnson not to bother him for race tips. Johnson will talk about how fun it is to feel the pressure of a championship run, having done it seven years in a row. Kenseth will pretend to be barely aware of the standings.
None of it is unfriendly.
None of it may mean anything.
But with three races to go, both drivers understand it will probably take beating the other to claim the championship. For Johnson, it would be his sixth Sprint Cup title; for Kenseth, his second.
“It’s definitely a tense period of time,” said Johnson, who caught and passed Kenseth two weeks ago at Talladega only to see Kenseth tie him last week at Martinsville. “Actually, it’s a lot of fun once I can really slow things down and pay attention to it. Having to race so hard for it and fight for each and every point as we have is, in most situations, a lot of fun.”
Kenseth looks like he’s having fun, too. He jokes with reporters at the interview podium. He smiles in TV interviews. For the poker-faced Midwesterner, that’s got to mean he feels good about his position.
Maybe that’s exactly what he wants Johnson to think.
He shakes his head.
“I’m just not really into all the head games,” Kenseth said. “I’m not smart enough to be in the head games and insults and some of the stuff we’ve seen happen over the last few years. My brain is over capacity already with trying to figure out how to make my race car fast enough to be the best.”
It may not matter how hard Kenseth and Johnson try to knock each other off their games. They are two of the most unflappable drivers on the planet.
“A great way to describe Jimmie Johnson is inevitable,” driver Carl Edwards said. “It is amazing what they’re able to do.”
“Matt is as mild-mannered as you’ll get. You can almost call him Clark Kent,” ESPN analyst Dale Jarrett said.
Both drivers have stats on their side. They both have premier equipment. They know how to win at TMS.
What separates them right now?
“Who knows?” racing legend Richard Petty said. “Neither one of them’s got an edge. It’s one of them deals where — I’m a big believer in fate. You go out and do everything you can and work as hard as you can. So many things can go wrong that are out of their control. Just whichever one is the luckiest.”
Johnson doesn’t see any luck in Kenseth’s run.
“I think the championship battle brings the very best out of people, and he and his people are bringing their best each and every weekend,” Johnson said. “In order to win the championship, you have to be up front racing for the win. I expect to see the No. 20 there each and every week.”
Maybe it’s a matter of which driver is most motivated. For Kenseth, it could be that he is driven by one particular memory.
“He beat me at Las Vegas one time, passed me on Turn 4 on the last lap after we had led all day,” Kenseth said. “It still stings. He actually has that picture hung up somewhere. I saw a TV special on him once, and he had that picture in the background with him crossing the finish line ahead of me. I remember that. Hopefully we can turn the tables and pull off a win on him toward the end someday.”
Just something to think about.