John­son in con­trol as Kenseth strug­gles

The Washington Times Daily - - Sports - BY JENNA FRYER

AVON­DALE, ARIZ. | Jim­mie John­son seized con­trol of the cham­pi­onship bat­tle fol­low­ing a dis­as­trous per­for­mance by Matt Kenseth on Sun­day at Phoenix In­ter­na­tional Race­way.

John­son widened his lead in the Sprint Cup standings to 28 points over Kenseth head­ing into next Sun­day’s sea­son fi­nale at Homestead by fin­ish­ing third in a work­man­like per­for­mance for the five-time cham­pion. John­son will take his sixth ti­tle by fin­ish­ing 23rd or bet­ter next week.

“We’re head­ing into Homestead in the po­si­tion we want to be in,” John­son said. “I’ll have to go down there and run 400 miles. It’s far from over. You’ve got to fin­ish that race. Al­though we have a nice cush­ion, we still have to go down there and take care of busi­ness.”

Kevin Har­vick won Sun­day at Phoenix for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year, but all eyes were on Kenseth, who strug­gled might­ily for the first time in the Chase for the Sprint Cup cham­pi­onship. Kenseth fin­ished 23rd.

His car was off at the very start of the race and Kenseth strug­gled to tell crew chief Ja­son Rat­cliff what ad­just­ments to make on a Toy­ota he de­scribed at one point as “just not driv­able.”

“I don’t even know what to tell you to fix, to be hon­est,” Kenseth ra­dioed. “I am so aero tight. So aero tight.”

Fig­ur­ing track po­si­tion and clean air was the only fix, Rat­cliff opted for a strat­egy of hav­ing Kenseth do the op­po­site of other driv­ers: If they pit­ted, Kenseth did not, and vice versa. It worked as Kenseth cracked the top 10, but then back­fired hor­rif­i­cally on a dis­as­trous pit stop at the worst pos­si­ble time.

Mo­ments af­ter con­tact be­tween John­son and Carl Ed­wards knocked John­son out of the groove and forced him to save his Chevro­let from wreck­ing, a cau­tion was called for Josh Wise’s spin. The Joe Gibbs Rac­ing crew botched the pit stop, chang­ing strat­egy mid-stop, and Kenseth com­pounded the prob­lem by run­ning over his air hose. His car had to be backed up be­fore it could be ser­viced. It dropped him to 30th, two laps down, and he restarted be­hind John­son at the one op­por­tu­nity he’d had to make up some ground.

“Af­ter that is­sue, we came to pit road and left, and I ex­pected him to be ahead of us,” John­son said. “He was be­hind me and I knew it was just about try­ing to get points on him from there.”

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