AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Over the final weeks of what would become his most recent title run, Jimmie Johnson didn't even want to speak with Denny Hamlin, his closest rival for the crown. Whenever their paths crossed over the latter stages of that playoff, the soon-to-be five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion wanted to look in the other direction.
What a contrast that is to these days, when Johnson and Matt Kenseth not only casually chat backstage before driver introductions, they also visit each others' motorhomes when their young daughters want to play together. It's hard to remember two recent championship contenders who've gotten along quite as well as Johnson and Kenseth, a pair of middle-aged dads who also happen to be battling for the biggest prize in NASCAR.
"I think our relationship has always been good. It's probably better right now than it's ever been," Kenseth said Friday at Phoenix International Raceway, which Sunday will host the penultimate event in a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup that Johnson leads by seven points over the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. This has so far been a title race without any of the friction that defined last season's battle between the teams of Johnson and Brad Keselowski, whose rivalry endures to this day.
"It's different in some of those levels," Johnson said. "But on track, it's just real simple. They're good. They're strong. We've got to find a way to be better."
That, both title hopefuls say, is when the lines begin to blur and two friends just become two of 43 drivers on the track trying to accomplish the same thing. Johnson and Kenseth have been close since the latter claimed the title with Roush Fenway Racing in 2003, and Johnson and then-girlfriend Chandra drove over the Kenseth's house to share celebratory beers with Matt and wife Katie. Now both drivers have a pair of young daughters, leading to natural interactions in a competitor motorhome lot that's grown full of little kids during this recent baby boom in NASCAR.
Once the green flag flies, though, none of that matters.
"I don't think it makes any difference," Kenseth said. "When you drop the green out here on Sunday, there's 42 cars that you want to beat and there's 42 teams and guys that you're trying to get ahead of and you're trying to beat to go win the race. The guy I get along with the best on the race track, I want to beat him just as bad as the guy I get along with the least on the race track. For me, it honestly doesn't really matter. Once they throw the green, they're all cars that you want to beat and finish in front of, and you realize that to win the race, you have to figure out how to beat them all."
Speaking at an event Thursday night when one of his cars from last year was enshrined in owner Roger Penske's museum, Keselowski said the key to his title run last season was that he got aggressive with Johnson, forcing the No. 48 team into mistakes like the cut tire at Phoenix that all but scuttled its championship hopes. Hard racing was Johnson's weakness, Keselowski said, an assertion the Hendrick Motorsports driver later roundly dismissed.
Keselowski added that Kenseth might benefit from a similar tactic, and indeed the cars of the two title contenders were around one another occasionally in opening Sprint Cup practice Friday on the one-mile Phoenix track. But Kenseth said that's not gamesmanship -- it's just the way he competes, regardless of who he's up against.
"I think I race everybody really the same," Kenseth said "It doesn't always work out according to plan, but I think you always race people the way you'd like to be raced. You try to show them respect, and more times than not you get that back. ? When they start a race, you're going to race everybody the same and you're hoping you have a good enough car and everything goes good enough where you can figure out how to win."
Jeff Gordon has been there, winning four titles of his own -- three of those in the heyday of Dale Earnhardt -- and going down to the wire against Johnson in 2007. He knows there's a friendship between Johnson and Kenseth, but also believes there are deep competitive urges beneath it.
"Don't let that fool you. Both of those guys are fierce competitors. They just haven't had to battle one another one-on-one on the track," Gordon said. "Honestly, me and Earnhardt, we didn't either in '95. We never had one incident in '95 on the race track that I can remember. We had a few others prior to that and after that, but not really. It seemed like when I was at my best, he was a fifth- or 10th-place car. When he was at his best, I was a fifth- or 10th-place car. We never had a one-on-one, hard battle in a tight points battle. You take Jimmie and Matt this weekend, they're in a tight battle. If they're lined up side-by-side on a restart, it's going to get a little more interesting."
Indeed, circumstances haven't yet played out to put Johnson and Kenseth in head-to-head situations at the end of Chase races as they did for Johnson and Keselowski a season ago. But at the same time, these are both savvy, veteran drivers who know how to minimize any distraction that can get in the way of a championship -- potential personal beefs included.
"I think they want it to be settled on the track," Gordon said. "They don't want it to be settled in the media, or anything to be created, because they just want to go have it settled on the track. And I'm not saying that's the best thing for the entertainment value of the sport. I'm just saying, that's where our mindset is as competitors. We just want to win. We just want to win races and championships. We hope in that process it's very entertaining. But if it's not, we don't look at that as our issue."
Johnson and Kenseth did have a few bumpy episodes during their days in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, when Kenseth was a championship contender and Johnson was "the slow guy in the way," as he called himself. But they moved past it, got older, had kids, won titles and developed a friendship that's thwarted any potential personal drama between them in this Chase -- even now, when they're the last two drivers standing trying to win it.
"I like having friends more than I like having enemies," Kenseth said, "so yes, I think it's good."
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