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Johnson has lead and pole in Chase

Johnson, leading Kenseth by seven points with two races left, qualifies first for Sunday's event at Phoenix International Raceway.

November 09, 2013|Jim Peltz
  • Jimmie Johnson, left, interrupts an interview by fellow NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth to hand him a drink during qualifying last week at Texas Motor Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson, left, interrupts an interview by fellow NASCAR driver… (LM Otero / Associated Press )

AVONDALE, ARIZ. — Trying to pick a favorite between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth to win NASCAR's Sprint Cup title? Don't ask Kevin Harvick.

"It's a crapshoot at this point," Harvick said Friday. "Performance-wise it's a draw."

Johnson, seeking a sixth championship, has a slim seven-point lead over Kenseth with two races left, starting with Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Harvick is third in the standings, 40 points behind Johnson, which Harvick acknowledged "is a lot to overcome" at this late stage of the 10-race Chase.

"We can control how we run and that's about it," said Harvick, a three-time winner at Phoenix. "Having both of those guys have major catastrophes in two races is asking for all but a miracle in my mind."

As for whether Johnson or Kenseth has an edge in the Chase, "It's just about who hits it the best on a particular weekend," Harvick said.

Johnson hit the mark Friday by winning the pole for Sunday's race with a lap of 139.22 mph, a track record, on the one-mile Phoenix International oval. Harvick qualified ninth and Kenseth, a bit unlucky, was 14th.

The drivers' qualifying order is based on a drawing, and Kenseth qualified fourth when the track was still warm and slippery. Johnson went out 41st when cooler conditions provided more grip for his tires.

"It didn't hurt going out late," Johnson said.

Johnson and Kenseth not only are close in points but close in driving style, veteran driver Jeff Burton said. "They are both aggressive drivers but they don't do it by running into you. They are both clean drivers," Burton said.

Kenseth said he was "as optimistic as I've been" about his Chase chances.

"Certainly I don't view the 48 [Johnson team] as weak or vulnerable," Kenseth said. "They can win any weekend at any kind of race track. I don't feel they're off their game, I just feel like at our best that we can run with them."

Johnson, meanwhile, came to the desert as a slight favorite, because he holds the career Cup win record (four) at Phoenix International. But he discounted the edge.

"I don't know if the numbers mean much, especially in championship battles," Johnson said. "We've had some good success but I can't rely on that. It's all in the past."

Burton, 46, will be making his 1,000th career start across all three of NASCAR's major series Sunday. Asked what the milestone meant to him, Burton replied, "It means I'm getting old.

"I've been really blessed to do it for as long as I've done it," said Burton, who has 21 career wins in the Cup series.

The Virginian said in September that he would not continue driving the No. 31 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next year. Burton said Friday he's not yet ready to announce his plans for 2014.

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james.peltz@latimes.com Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

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