There was no trash talking, no attempts at mind games. If there was tension or nerves, nobody could tell.
In one of the tamest NASCAR title contenders news conferences in recent memory, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick kept it light and breezy as they discussed their championship chances against Jimmie Johnson.
“Maybe because he’s ahead by 28 points?” Kenseth said. “If he was building his own engine, I’d be messing with him.”
Alas, Johnson won’t be building his own engine for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he needs only to finish 23rd or better to win his sixth Sprint Cup title. For Johnson, who has a 4.66 average finish through the first nine Chase races, it’s an easy Sunday drive.
“I think Jimmie could run (23rd) through the grass or with three wheels,” Kenseth said. “He’s going to have to have a mechanical problem or crash to make something happen.”
But nothing is a given in auto racing, as Johnson learned last year as he raced Brad Keselowski for the title.
Johnson went in to the penultimate race with a seven-point lead in the standings only to suffer a tire failure at Phoenix. It gave Keselowski a slight lead going into the finale, but Johnson had a mechanical failure that handed Keselowski his first championship.
Johnson, who reeled off a record five titles from 2006 through 2010, came up empty for a second consecutive year.
“Last year was a good lesson for me, and I think I’m carrying some of that experience now in dealing with this,” Johnson said.
Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team took a huge step away from their bad performance last week by winning the pole Friday for the Sprint Cup-deciding race. Kenseth had a lap at 177.667 mph to claim the top starting spot for Sunday’s race. Johnson qualified seventh. Harvick, the only other driver mathematically eligible to win the title, qualified sixth. … Matt Crafton won the NASCAR Truck Series championship, his first in 13 seasons. Crafton only needed to start the 200-mile season finale at Homestead-Miami on Friday to win the title. He finished 21st as Kyle Busch won the race and earned himself the owners championship. … Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel posted the fastest time in the day’s two practice sessions at the U.S. Grand Prix, driving the Circuit of the Americas in 1 minute, 37.305 seconds. Red Bull Mark Webber was second on the first day of driving in Austin, Texas.