There are two races to go and one thing is certain:
The battle for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship is far from over.
Jimmie Johnson's seven-point lead over Matt Kenseth is precarious going into Sunday's AdvoCare 500 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Phoenix International Raceway. Remember last year: Johnson came to Phoenix leading Brad Keselowski by seven. Johnson lost the lead -- and ended up losing the championship.
"Last year we were in this situation with a points lead; we had a seven-point lead going into Phoenix and had a very bad race and [lost] a right front tire," said Johnson, the five-time series champion. "Actually had a decent race going … but hammered the wall. Really hurt our opportunity and our chance to win a sixth championship."
Johnson surrendered his seven-point lead at Phoenix last season to eventual champion Brad Keselowski. Worth noting: the points leader entering the penultimate race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has given up his lead over the final two races six times.
Although Johnson currently leads the Wisconsin native, Kenseth has seven wins to Johnson's six, an advantage that could determine the champion if the two are tied in points following the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
After comparing the two drivers' records at Phoenix, most people might give the edge to Johnson, who has four wins, 13 top fives and 16 top 10s in 20 starts. Kenseth's stat line: one win, five top fives and nine top 10s in 22 starts at the one-mile track. While Johnson's numbers are impressive, he hasn't visited Victory Lane at Phoenix since the track was repaved and slightly reconfigured in 2011.
"There's definitely less confidence in the track that we're racing on now, and if you just look at our performance over the years, we won so many races with the old configuration and that old asphalt," Johnson said. "If there was one guy sad to see the old configuration and asphalt go away, that was me. We just had something that worked there and fit my driving style and we were able to win a lot of races."
Johnson finished second in the March race earlier this year, but that's juxtaposed with the 32nd he turned in during last year's Chase race. In his last 14 starts, he's finished in the top five in 12 of them, including three consecutive wins from fall 2007 through fall 2008. His most recent win came in the 2009 Chase race.
Johnson tops six Loop Data categories including Driver Rating (116.4), Fastest Laps Run (538) and Average Green Flag Speed (125.519 mph). Additionally, he has led more laps (932) at Phoenix than Kenseth (212) and third-place Kevin Harvick (420) have combined.
The California driver knows full well that the season is far from over and that there are still a scheduled 712 miles left to run before the intensity and pressure lessens, so don't expect a letdown. Johnson's hopes for a sixth championship could rest on this weekend.
"I'm just not going to put my guard down," he said. "We need to go into Phoenix, race well. … We finished second there in the spring, so I feel strong about our setup and the performance we should have there, but that doesn't guarantee us anything, and we need to go out and have a good strong, clean weekend."
Staff Report - NASCAR Wire Service