FORT WORTH, Texas — Matt Kenseth started to answer a question about how he could affect Jimmie Johnson on the track when the five-time Sprint Cup champion suddenly leaned around a corner of the room.
Then after both finished their qualifying laps later at Texas, Kenseth was trackside during more interviews when Johnson playfully interrupted him and handed him a drink.
It’s appropriate that the two are so close to each other so much. Kenseth and Johnson are deadlocked for the points lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup with three races left. The next race is today at the high-banked, 1ﾽ-mile Texas track where they are statistically the best two drivers.
Johnson and Kenseth have each won twice at Texas, where their 15 top-10 finishes are tied for the most and they have the best average finishes — Kenseth at 8.5, just ahead of Johnson’s 9.1
“It might change from his end if we’re still in it all the way to the end, but I’m just not really into all the head games,” Kenseth said. “My brain is over capacity already with trying to figure out how to make my race car fast enough to be the best. They always say, if you want to be the man, you have to beat the man and he’s always definitely been the man.”
Johnson qualified his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet third at Texas. He will start in the row ahead of Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, who will roll off from the sixth position.
The two competitors seem to be genuinely enjoying the Chase so far, on and off the track.
“I think we do have a lot of similarities in the way we race. Being around him, off the track as well and with his family, we have a lot in common,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say we are identical. But we do have something very deep down that is very common between the both of us, the way we approach things a little more laid back.”
Carl Edwards, the only three-time Cup winner at Texas, is the polesitter for the 501-mile race.
Jeff Gordon starts eighth a week after he got himself back in the title conversation with a victory at Martinsville that moved up to a season-high third in points. He is 27 points behind the leaders.
Still, this is likely a two-man Chase in Texas, where in the last two falls the top two contenders coming in also finished 1-2 in that race.
Fully living up to the billing of a “Texas Title Fight” in 2011, Tony Stewart won to get within eight points of Carl Edwards’ lead. Stewart went on to win the season title.
Last November, Johnson and Brad Keselowski raced side-by-side in the closing laps, even slamming together without crashing. Johnson won the race and left still with the points lead, but Keselowski overcame him the last two races for the championship.
Johnson had a slim points lead when he arrived at Texas in 2010 in a close three-way Chase, but finished ninth that day and fell out of the lead. He did recover to win the last of his five consecutive titles.
At Texas in 2009, Johnson crashed on the third lap and spent more than an hour sitting in his car while his crew made repairs to get him back on the track. He finished 38th and 129 laps off the pace to see his points lead shrink from 184 to 73, though he stayed on top the rest of the season.
Kenseth has been a runner-up at Texas four times, including the spring race in 2007. That fall, Kenseth and Johnson traded the lead several times in the closing laps.
“I do remember that day, he was faster, ran us down. I think he was leading the points and we were pretty much out of the championship battle at the time,” Kenseth said. “So, man, I raced him as hard as I could figuring that, hoping that he would be a little bit cautious and I would be able to win the race and hang on, but I couldn’t.
“He did everything he could and beat us. ... It was a heck of a race. I hope to turn the tables some day and be able to beat him.”