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Hot/Not: Jimmie Johnson's big lead is a mirage

Matt Kenseth Has Been Stronger Through 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Races in 2013

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Eleven races in, Jimmie Johnson holds a 44-point lead over Carl Edwards. (USAT Sports)

A lay man checking into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings this week sure wouldn't get the actual story after 11 races of the 2013 season.

The five-time champion Jimmie Johnson looks to be sitting on his own island while the rest of the field desperately paddles through the surf in pursuit. His 44-point lead – just shy of the maximum earnings available in any given race – makes it look like the driver No. 48 has his feet propped up over the sand with a cold one in hand.

But Johnson – and his chief competition to this point in the season, Matt Kenseth – know the story goes deeper than that. Erase one bad engine, one inadvertent crash and one penalty to see it crystal clear: Kenseth really should be the guy leading the pack as the series heads home for two weeks in Charlotte.

The Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 driver has strung together an impressive early line, and bolstered it with his win Saturday night at Darlington at the expense of teammate Kyle Busch. Kenseth has three top-5 finishes (all wins) and seven top-10s to this point. Johnson, meanwhile, carries a line of two wins, six top-5s and eight top-10s.

Kenseth led the most laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 before an engine failure – while he was leading, no less – kicked him to the garage with less than 50 laps left. Several weeks later, Kenseth was on the verge of taking the lead back from Jeff Gordon with just over 100 laps to go at Bristol Motor Speedway when Gordon cut a tire and crashed them both.

Kenseth led 85 laps at Bristol much like Daytona, and looked to be on pace for at least a top-5 or better. A pair of 5th-place finishes at those tracks would have netted some 83 points (42 at Daytona with the bonus for leading the most laps and 41 at Bristol with a bonus for leading a lap) but he instead scored just a total of 19 – a point differential of 64 points.

Currently, Kenseth is third in points and 59 points behind the No. 48.

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Matt Kenseth holds up three fingers to signify his third win this year after his victory at Darlington. (AP)

Playing the hypothetical game of assuming Daytona and Bristol DNFs became fifth-place runs, Kenseth would suddenly have a five-point lead on Johnson. And what if Kenseth didn't get caught with the barely illegal Kansas engine that had a connecting rod three grams too light? That's another 12 points in his favor, extending his possible points lead to 17 over Johnson. Perhaps more impressively, Kenseth would have gapped Carl Edwards – immediately behind Johnson in the standings currently – by some 61 points. Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be 66 points back.

Of course, using the best possible scenario for each driver's race could dramatically impact the makeup of the points spread. But with Kenseth, drawing assumptions of what he could have done to this point seems a little bit more real.

NASCAR's advanced statistics bear that out, too. Kenseth's average running position in 2013 (6.0) is nearly one-half spot better than Johnson and six spots ahead third-best Clint Bowyer. He's led more laps than anyone (22 percent) and has a sterling mid-race average position of 3.3.

Kenseth is on a torrid pace with his new team, even if the important numbers don't completely tell that story.

Let's dig in a bit more from the Darlington weekend.

NEUTRAL: It's been fun to see how fast NASCAR's new car design has been in qualifying this season. Speeds, both in race weekends and during testing sessions, have routinely topped 200 mph on the bigger tracks. At Indianapolis last week, Jeff Gordon reported a straightaway speed over 215 mph.

But it's worth questioning if speeds like that are actually making the racing worse. More speed requires more downforce, which requires more clear air. It also requires a harder tire from Goodyear that lasts under the increased load. I don't portend to have the solution, but you get the feeling drivers could roll the dice a bit more with things toned down a bit. Darlington, for what it's worth, had a record qualifying speed Friday (181.918 mph) in Cup qualifying only to have its fewest lead changes (9) since 1997 Saturday night.

HOT: Thanks to his eighth-place Darlington finish, it's taken just 11 races for Juan Pablo Montoya to match the number of top 10s he scored in all of last season. The first came at Richmond just before Talladega in the race where he looked like a sure-bet to win until a late caution flag jumbled the field.

NEUTRAL: Brad Keselowski has three consecutive finishes of 15th or worse (he was 32nd at Darlington) which is enough to raise a red flag when we're talking about the defending series champion. But despite the struggling stretch for the No. 2, we're a long, long way from panicking over Keselowski's slump.

Compared to this point one year ago, Keselowski is actually finishing three spots higher on average, and has scored just two fewer points. A concern might be his percentage of laps completed in the top 15 (down 15 percent year over year to 62.6 percent), but that drop has correlated in just a 2.5-point drop in NASCAR's Driver Rating. The good news for Keselowski is that he's scored a top-10 in every 1.5-mile track race this year, so he should be in line to fare better in Charlotte.

HOT: I realize I chopped Jimmie Johnson some above by writing how Kenseth has been the most impressive driver of 2013, but let's not overlook how good he's been to start the season. The No. 48 has just one finish worse than 12th.

HOT: Give Kyle Busch credit for not wrecking a race car that finished with less than 15 pounds of air pressure in the right rear tire. His sixth-place run with those circumstances may actually be more impressive than if he would've completed the dominating performance in victory lane.

NEUTRAL: I won't give Busch credit for how he raced Kasey Kahne into Turn 1 on Lap 334 while the two skirmished for the lead. Getting lost in if Busch's car actually touched Kahne or not isn't the point. As Kahne said, it was Busch's incredibly low entry that caused the No. 18 car to wash up the track just under Kahne's spoiler. With Darlington's Turn 1 being ultra fast, causing such an aero disturbance is basically the equivalence of making contact at lower speed.

It wasn't a dirty move by any means for Busch – he was trying to grab the lead back in a race where clean air played such a big factor – but Kahne's disapproval of how the No. 18 has raced him this season is completely legitimate.

NOT: Tony Stewart's 15th-place finish at Darlington was his third-best of the 2013 season, and his best since finishing 11th at Las Vegas. Compared to 2012, Stewart's average running position (21.2) is ten spots lower. His 21st-place spot in the Cup point standings is his worst ever after 11 races.

HOT: It's by no means the biggest track on the circuit, but it was great to see a very strong Darlington crowd Saturday night.

The Stenica Showdown Cup!

We're keeping track each week of how NASCAR's most important (only?) competitive couple performs against one another. The highest-finishing Sprint Cup result between Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. each week earns a point. Each driver can earn a bonus for doing just about anything else, racing related or not. We should probably start thinking about an appropriate trophy.

Current standings:

1st - Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 11 points (18th at Darlington)

2nd - Danica Patrick., 5 points (28th at Darlington)

I'm a little disappointed in Stenhouse not replicating his Richmond date night idea during Friday night's Nationwide Series race, so he only gets a point for beating Danica by a mere four laps and 10 spots.

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