MORE: Full Chase coverage
They're a pair of cool customers who have each earned the admiration of everyone they race against, a pair of former champions from the same generation who each have two little girls at home. Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, who combined have swept the first three races of this Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, appear at first blush to be cast from the same mold.
Well, maybe not.
"I've been trying to find some time to get away," Kenseth said during a visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway to advocate breast cancer awareness. "I was kind of jealous Clint (Bowyer) and Ryan (Newman) got to get away last week and go elk hunting. I was going to go on that hunt and I couldn't, because I had other commitments and things to do around town. So I was kind of bummed out about that, because that would have been fun and relaxing."
Yes, perhaps it's a little difficult to envision a certain five-time champion galloping across the Wyoming steppe on horseback, a crossbow slung over one shoulder. Just as it might be hard to picture Kenseth running 10 miles each morning in preparation for his next triathlon. No question, Kenseth and Johnson are both gifted and largely unflappable drivers on the race track, personality traits befitting their respective first- and second-place standing in the points.
But the similarities might just end there.
"They're both talented race car drivers, but I think they're different people, and how they handle things professionally and personally are probably slightly different," said Brian Vickers, who was a teammate of Johnson's during his days at Hendrick Motorsports, and now works with Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing. "I think they're both good representatives of the sport, and representatives of their sponsors ? but they are different people. I'd say they're very different, actually."
There is, though, some personal history. Kenseth moved into NASCAR's top series two years ahead of Johnson, and it was the former Roush Fenway Racing driver who proved the No. 48 team's stiffest competition -- he even led the standings with three races remaining -- in 2006, before Johnson finally broke through and won his first title. Kenseth and Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus go back even further, to the days when late model drivers in the upper Midwest plied a circuit that spanned Kenseth's native Wisconsin to Knaus' hometown of Rockford, Ill.
Kenseth even once worked the counter at the Lefthander Chassis shop in Rockford, which Knaus would visit to buy parts for his father John, who was a star driver at the local short track. "That's where we first met and talked," remembered Kenseth, 41.
"He really gets it," Knaus, 42, said of Kenseth. "He gets it more than most of the drivers out there. He knows when to get the hell out of the way. He knows when he has the best car. He knows when to take advantage of that. He knows what to do. I had a lot of respect for Matt when he finished second in the championship to us a few years ago. His father and Matt both came up to me and said, 'Man, we wanted to win, but you definitely were the best.' Matt is a good dude. I like racing against Matt. I think going to Gibbs has given him better equipment. I think the Roush equipment isn't as good as what they've got at Gibbs."
Johnson agreed. Over the years he and Kenseth have developed a friendship, allowing Johnson to good-naturedly rib his JGR counterpart -- especially at a place like Martinsville, where Johnson has won eight times and Kenseth had never enjoyed much success. That is, until this past spring, when Kenseth led a career-best 96 laps at the half-mile track.
"The change has been good for him. Is it equipment? Is it a personnel thing, working with someone new and different, that relationship? I don't know where it lies," Johnson, 38, said after his victory Sunday at Dover, which moved him within eight points of Kenseth in the standings. "But I think the bottom line is, the tracks Matt struggled at, for whatever reason, that has risen, and he's more competitive on those tracks than he was at the Roush side of life."
And he's admittedly more confident than he's ever been, understandable in a season where he's notched a personal best seven race wins. Although this championship is far from a two-man race -- Kenseth's JGR teammate Kyle Busch is right there, 12 points back in third -- it's difficult to ignore the two former champions at the top, particularly given the mutual respect that flows back and forth.
"I have a lot of respect for obviously everything Jimmie and Chad and everybody over there has done. It's been amazing," Kenseth said. "I still think, as crazy as this sounds, in a way they don't get enough credit for what they've done, because it's just been unbelievable. So I think Jimmie and I have always had a lot of respect for each other on the race track, off the race track. I've always gotten along with him well, and I've always had a lot of respect for Chad. I've known Chad for a lot of years, and obviously with all the wins and championships he's engineered, he's definitely someone to look up to."
Busch was a teammate to Johnson for several years at Hendrick, and is in his first year working with Kenseth at JGR. "They're completely different people," he said. "I think Jimmie is the best of the best. Week in week out, year in year out, Jimmie is the guy. Matt is obviously very, very good at what he does, and he's voiced it -- this is the best opportunity he feels like he's ever had of going for a championship."
But personally? "Everybody's different in their own way, in their own respect," Busch added. "? I probably joke around a lot more with Matt Kenseth than I ever did with Jimmie Johnson. Jimmie was always a go-to guy -- ask him questions, lean on him, ask him, ask him, ask him. Matt, he's that guy too, but he's definitely more of a -- 'Hey, the Packers sucked this weekend. What did you do to those guys?' kind of thing."
So don't let those unflustered personalities behind the wheel fool you -- Kenseth is about as unlikely to put a down payment on a condo in Manhattan as Johnson is to spring for box seats at Lambeau Field. No question they share some similarities in terms of demeanor and reputation, and all too often their position atop the standings. Beyond that? "I wouldn't even say they have the same personality," Vickers said. And in one notable opinion, the former late model racer and motocross rider really aren't that comparable at all.
"I would never stand here and compare myself to who I consider is the best," Kenseth said. "When you look over the numbers of what (Johnson) has done in this day and age, with the competition and all the rules changes and the Chase and all the different things, to be able to win all those championships, I think it's hard to say that he's not the best. So I would never stand here and compare myself to the best. I think I'd have a lot of work to do to get better to be able to be in that same conversation. But that's just me."
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Matt Kenseth
- Jimmie Johnson