When the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship started three races ago, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch were considered the odds-on favorites to win. Three races later, absolutely nothing has happened to change that.
The only drivers that have three top-10 finishes in the playoffs are Kenseth, Johnson and Busch. While everyone else has stumbled at least once during the Chase, all three at the top continued to separate themselves from the rest of the field.
Heading into Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, Kevin Harvick is fourth in the Sprint Cup Series standings and he’s already 39 points back. Based on a single point for each finishing position and based on a 43-car field, he’s almost a full race behind.
Kenseth has two victories in the Chase; Johnson has one. Kenseth leads Johnson by eight points with seven races to go, while Busch is 12 points back.
“It just confirmed what I think we’ve all been kind of feeling and thinking about, is that those guys, they’re both in a great position and in it for the long haul,” Johnson said. “My whole thought process was just how tough this championship’s going to be. They’re bringing their best and doing their best. You’ve got to deliver.”
There were plenty of reasons to make Kenseth, Johnson and Busch the favorites. They combined to win 13 of the first 26 races before the playoffs started, and together they have the most top-10 finishes.
Once the Chase started, all three seemed to take their efforts to a higher level.
“I feel like the 48’s (Johnson) always sort of been the 48,” Busch said. “He’s always been able to run way better than the other Hendrick cars. We’ll see how that plays out throughout the rest of the Chase.
“I don’t foresee anything changing. I see competition getting stiffer. Whether or not Matt and I are the ones competing against each other, that’s to be seen. But I don’t think anything’s going to change.”
While Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman are barely hanging on, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne already face nearly-impossible challenges to get back into contention.
Kenseth has a series-best seven wins this season, but he’s taking a careful approach to the final seven races.
For all his success, he also has two engine failures and a crash that didn’t allow him to finish
three races during the regular season.
“There’s so much racing to do,” Kenseth said. “I don’t know if you know who your main competition is going to be or if you’re going to be part of it when you really get down to it. There’s two months of racing to do.”
Based on past performances - and five consecutive championships by Johnson starting in 2006 - Johnson has to like his chances.
Of the three, he has 24 combined career wins at the remaining seven tracks in the Chase.
Kenseth has nine wins, including a victory April 21 at Kansas, while Busch has three combined wins.
“I’m not putting my guard down,” Johnson said. “I’m certainly looking forward and there are only two guys that I’m paying attention to right now. So in that mindset, sure you can call it a three-man race. It’s still way too early to count many out yet.”
Or is it?