During his run to last year's title, Brad Keselowski came up with an apt description of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship when he called it "a 10-round heavyweight title bout." Indeed, it seems the Chase usually comes down to a two-driver battle, with each of the 10 races representing one round. Last year it was Keselowski vs. Jimmie Johnson. In 2011 it was Tony Stewart vs. Carl Edwards. In 2010 it was Johnson vs. Denny Hamlin. And so on.
This year's Chase is following that same formula, with Matt Kenseth and Johnson (once again) quickly separating themselves from the rest of the field. Sure, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch still have a chance, especially if they are able to gain significant ground this coming Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Big wrecks are a regular feature of the restrictor-plate track because of the pack racing that takes place there. And if Kenseth and Johnson are involved in one of those wrecks, then the points race could tighten in a hurry.
For now, however, this year's Chase has all the makings of another mano-a-mano battle that likely won't be decided until the final round. Currently, the two combatants are tied 2-2-1 on the hypothetical Chase fight scorecard. Kenseth came out swinging and staggered Johnson early, winning the first two rounds (at Chicago and New Hampshire) with race victories. Johnson responded with a win of his own in round three (at Dover), then narrowly took the fourth round (Kansas) on points by finishing sixth while Kenseth came in 11th. We'll call this past Sunday's fifth-round results (Charlotte) a draw, as Kenseth finished third and Johnson was fourth.
So with five rounds/races to go, here is the tale of the tape for Kenseth and Johnson at the remaining tracks in this year's Chase:
Talladega Superspeedway: Neither driver has performed particularly well at Talladega over the years. Johnson has two victories and 10 top-10 finishes in 23 starts (an average finish of 17.1). He had finished outside the top-15 three consecutive times before turning in a fifth-place run in May. Kenseth has only one win and nine top-10s in 27 Talladega starts (average finish: 17.6). But he has posted three consecutive top-10s there, and his lone victory came in last year's October race. It's close, but Kenseth has performed better at Talladega lately. Advantage: Kenseth.
Martinsville Speedway: This is the biggest mismatch remaining on the schedule. Johnson has been dominant at Martinsville, winning eight times and finishing in the top-10 in 87 percent of his starts (20 of 23). Kenseth, meanwhile, is winless there and has managed only eight top-10s in 27 starts (30 percent). Johnson's average finish at the track is a full 10 spots better than Kenseth's, meaning this race could result in a significant points pick-up for Johnson. Advantage: Johnson.
Texas Motor Speedway: Both Kenseth and Johnson have excellent records at Texas and it's hard to find an advantage for either one. Each driver has two career victories at the track with 15 top-10s, though Kenseth has made two additional starts. He finished 12th at Texas in April, snapping a streak of five consecutive top-fives, while Johnson was sixth. It is likely that neither driver will gain many points on the other at Texas, unless one of them wins the race. Advantage: Draw.
Phoenix International Raceway: This is another track where Johnson has historically performed quite a bit better than Kenseth. Johnson has four wins, 16 top-10s and an average finish of 6.5 at PIR. Kenseth has only one victory (way back in 2002), nine top-10s and an average finish of 17.2. The one piece of good news for Kenseth is that he came in seventh in the March race at PIR. The bad news is that Johnson was second in that race. Advantage: Johnson.
Homestead-Miami Speedway: This is one of the few tracks where Johnson has never won, though part of that could be attributed to the fact that several times during his stretch of five consecutive championships, he arrived at HMS simply needing a solid finish to win the title and wasn't necessarily racing for the win. Kenseth won at the track in 2007, but that is one of only five times in 13 career starts that he has even cracked the top-10. While Kenseth has an average finish of 17.6 at HMS, that figure is dragged down by his failure to finish better than 19th in his first five starts there. Since then, he has posted an average finish of 9.9. Advantage: Draw.
So if past performance is any indicator, Johnson will end up with a slim 4-3-3 advantage in the round-by-round scoring and capture his sixth career championship. The best chance for Kenseth might be to pick up enough points this week at Talladega to withstand Johnson's apparent advantage at Martinsville and Phoenix.
1. Matt Kenseth (2nd previously) -- The difference between Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson is so thin right now that they probably should be ranked 1A and 1B. Kenseth finished one spot ahead of Johnson at Charlotte on Sunday and leads him by four points in the standings. That's good enough for the top spot in the rankings (at least for this week).
2. Jimmie Johnson (1st) -- For the third time since the Chase began, Johnson posted a top-five finish and still lost ground to Kenseth in the point standings. At the moment, with the race for the championship this close, it doesn't really matter whether Johnson is first or second in the standings. But he is well aware that there is almost no margin for error the rest of the way.
3. Kevin Harvick (3rd) -- Meanwhile, Harvick continues to lurk just off in the shadows, ready to make a move if the top two falter (or crash this upcoming weekend at Talladega). Harvick has finished sixth or better in four of the past five races, and he remains within striking distance of Kenseth at 29 points behind.
4. Kyle Busch (5th) -- Take away the Kansas race (and oh, how Busch wishes NASCAR would) and he would still be in the thick of the championship hunt. Busch has five top-five finishes during the past seven races, improving his season total to a series-best of 15. Had he managed merely a 10th-place finish at Kansas (instead of 34th), he would be only 13 points behind Kenseth.
5. Jeff Gordon (4th) -- Gordon had a solid seventh-place run at Charlotte, which would have been a good performance in May. In the Chase, however, anything outside of the top-five is a bit of disappointment, especially when the three drivers ahead of him in the point standings all finished better than he did.
6. Carl Edwards (10th) -- There is a significant gap between the first five drivers in the Power Rankings and the second five. So the fact that Edwards jumps up to sixth after a 10th-place finish at Charlotte is more an indication of the rest of the Chase field's inconsistency than anything else. Edwards has finished worse than 11th only once in the past six races.
7. Ryan Newman (unranked) -- He hasn't done as much with his second Chase chance as Gordon has, but he has posted three top-10 finishes in the first five races. That gives him a total of five top-10s over his past seven starts.
8. Kurt Busch (8th) -- Busch had a 14th-place run at Charlotte, his tenth finish in the top-15 during the past 12 races. He isn't going to win the championship, but he has done more than nearly anybody expected during his one season with the Furniture Row Racing team.
9. Clint Bowyer (unranked) -- Since the Richmond ruckus, Bowyer has been consistently nondescript. His best finish so far in the Chase has been ninth, and his worst has been 17th. One gets the feeling that he just wants to stay out of the spotlight for five more weeks and then try to rehabilitate his reputation next season.
10. Brad Keselowski (unranked) -- We're going outside the Chase to give the final spot in the Power Rankings to Keselowski instead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., mainly because he did something Sunday that Earnhardt rarely does anymore: win a race. It was Keselowski's 10th victory in the past five seasons, while Earnhardt has only one win during that span.