The 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has no respect for conventional wisdom.
Think about it. Matt Kenseth led the standings by four points midway through this year’s championship battle, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series headed to Talladega for the sixth Chase race.
Kenseth has embraced restrictor-plate racing, having won the 2009 and 2012 Daytona 500s as well as the 2012 Chase race at Talladega.
Johnson, on the other hand, has said he’d gladly take a 10th-place finish at Talladega and watch the race from his couch.
Accordingly, conventional wisdom said Kenseth would extend his Chase lead at Talladega before the series moved to Martinsville.
That didn’t happen. Johnson ran 13th at Talladega but led the most laps (47) and managed an eight-point swing over Kenseth, who finished a disappointing 20th at NASCAR’s longest closed course.
A week later, the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers battled at NASCAR’s shortest track, Martinsville, where Johnson’s career record is vastly superior — an average finish of 5.3 entering Sunday’s race versus Kenseth’s 15.8.
Accordingly, conventional wisdom said Johnson would extend his points lead at the paper-clip-shaped short track and begin to grind his way toward a sixth championship.
Wrong again. At Martinsville, it was Kenseth who led the most laps (202). That, combined with Kenseth’s second-place finish to Johnson’s fifth, deadlocked first place in the Chase standings with three races left.
True, Kenseth gave up the lead to race winner Jeff Gordon with 21 laps left, but the second-place run was the best in 11 years for the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Was Kenseth elated with his effort? You be the judge.
“I have nothing to complain about,” Kenseth said. “(You) just you always feel bad when you’re leading at the end, and your crew puts you out front, and you can’t hold on to win. So I’m disappointed about that.
“But, overall, what a great day.”
For the low-key Kenseth, that’s the functional equivalent of a victory jig down the full length of pit road.
For his part, Johnson tried to maintain an even strain after a fifth-place run that left him tied with Kenseth at the top of the standings.
“It’s going to be a dogfight to the end — the way that I would want to go racing for a championship, and I know that’s exactly what the fans want to see,” Johnson said. “We’ll keep digging hard. We had a decent day today and see if we can’t get this Lowe’s Chevrolet to Victory Lane here soon.”
Johnson may need to do just that. As it stands now, if the Chase should end in a tie, Kenseth would win the championship on a tiebreaker based on most victories (seven to Johnson’s five). That’s not a far-fetched outcome. Two years ago, the tiebreaker decided the title race between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards in Stewart’s favor.
Johnson acknowledged before Sunday’s race at Martinsville that his primary focus is on Kenseth. The superstitious five-time champion completed a 20-mile run as part of his training during the week before the race — because 20 is Kenseth’s car number.
But is it fair to discount other competitors? With his win on Sunday, Jeff Gordon gained ground on both frontrunners and now stands third, 27 points behind Kenseth and Johnson.
Conventional wisdom says it would be highly unlikely for Gordon to make up nine points per race against both drivers ahead of him.
But as we’ve seen in the first seven weeks of NASCAR’s playoff, nothing about this Chase is conventional.