Jimmie Johnson vs. Matt Kenseth.
We’ve seen this sort of two-man battle for NASCAR’s biggest prize before, but it’s been 15 years since two similarly successful drivers separated themselves from the rest of the pack in the hunt for the Sprint Cup Series championship.
A lot has changed since Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin – who finished first and second, respectively, in the 1998 championship battle – combined to win 20 of 33 races that season.
The season is longer. Several of the tracks are different. Even the system with which NASCAR determines its Cup champion has changed.
Yet the ability of Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team and Kenseth’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team to find themselves consistently in contention for race wins harkens back to one of NASCAR’s best championship battles.
“I think that was a great year,” said Gordon, who won a career-high 13 races in 1998 and finished second six times as he went on to win the third of his four series championships.
“I would say that certainly up to this point (Johnson and Kenseth) have separated themselves from the field. I think both of those guys could have won more races than they have.”
Entering Sunday’s Camping World 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Johnson and Kenseth have combined to win eight of the season’s 18 races.
Gordon is right – they very well could have more than four each.
Johnson led the most laps in one other race and failed to win while Kenseth has led the most laps in three others and failed to translate them into victories.
While Johnson and Kenseth are not first and second in points like Gordon and Martin finished the 1998 season, they would be first and second to start the Chase as the 12-driver field is seeded by most wins.
Clint Bowyer is actually second in the series standings but without any victories yet this year would be seeded near the bottom of the Chase field.
When it comes to closing deal on race day this season, Johnson and Kenseth stand above all others.
Comparisons are difficult but Speed TV analyst and former Cup crew chief Larry McReynolds seems similarities between the Gordon/Martin and Johnson/Kenseth duos.
“Mark’s season seemed to be a little like Kenseth’s this year. It was up and down. It seemed like Mark’s wins never were grouped together,” McReynolds said.
“Gordon’s wins, especially in the summer, seemed to have some similarities to what Johnson and the No. 48 team are doing right now. In the months of late June, July and August, Gordon won seven of nine races and then three of the last four.”
Certainly, there are no guarantees Johnson and Kenseth will remain closely matched the second half of the season.
It would not be a surprise to Speed TV analyst and former Cup crew chief Jeff Hammond.
“They are two teams that are very evenly matched with two pit crews who can hold their own on any given Sunday and a couple of really cool customers behind the wheel,” Hammond said.
“You’re looking at two of the most talented, thinking drivers of their time in Kenseth and Johnson.”
The “great equalizer” for Johnson and Kenseth will be the Chase, which resets the points for the championship battle with increments of three points given for each win.
If they remained tied with the most wins, they will begin the Chase tied in points. Under the old system, both drivers would be able to build or maintain leads throughout the season as they continued to accumulate good finishes and more wins.
“All of the sudden everything gets reset and all of the sudden you might have a small advantage based on your wins,” Gordon said. “Basically you’re on a clean slate and you have to put the best 10 races together right then and there to win the championship.
“That really just in itself breaks up the momentum that you had.”
The start of the Chase could be a road bump which may derail the championship hopes of Johnson or Kenseth – or both – or it simply may be a brief timeout before the continuation of an intriguing battle between two of the best drivers and organizations in NASCAR.
Hammond is convinced of the latter.
“If (Kenseth’s team) can get everything under control to the point they can go after (Johnson) like they want,” he explained, “I think we’d have one of the most competitive Chases ever.”