Championship shapes up to be a two-man race

Jeff Birchfield • Oct 23, 2013 at 6:43 AM

Many NASCAR observers have been saying for the past three weeks that it’s a two-man race for the Sprint Cup title.They appear to be right.Six races into the Chase, five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have seperated themselves from the rest of the field.Johnson overtook Kenseth for the points lead Sunday at Talladega. Johnson finished 13th and Kenseth finished 20th, leading to a four-point advantage for Johnson. While neither had a finish to write home about, most of the other Chase contenders had trouble as well.Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second, but at 52 points behind Johnson, he’s simply too far behind to win a championship at this late stage.With only four races left in the season, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are each 26 points behind Johnson, while Jeff Gordon is clinging onto a thread at 34 points down.Certainly, the odds would seem to be in Johnson’s favor at this point. He has five wins and 20 top-10 finishes over the first 32 races with his best track at Martinsville coming up Sunday.Johnson has eight wins in 23 Martinsville starts, while the paper-clip shaped short track is one where Kenseth usually struggles. Kenseth has just eight top-10 finishes in 27 races at the Virginia track and only one over the last four races.Before handing the 2013 title to Johnson, however, one must remember last season. That’s when he won back-to-back races at Martinsville and Texas, only to crash at Phoenix and fall 20 points behind Brad Keselowski.Kenseth, with a season-best seven wins, has shown some of the ability as Keselowski to keep the pressure on Johnson.Jamie McMurray is certainly feeling less pressure these days after his win Sunday. While there is a certain element of luck at restrictor-plate racing, a handful of drivers have shown an exceptional skill at that type of racing.McMurray has to be considered one of those exceptional plate drivers with four of his seven career wins coming at either Daytona or Talladega. Coincidentally, Earnhardt Jr. has been runner-up in McMurray’s last two plate wins. While non-Chase drivers have won the last two races, there are some in the Chase who really need a win this season.Gordon and Earnhardt have to be at the top of the list, while a win would do wonders for Clint Bowyer after a brutal stretch for Michael Waltrip Racing.Martinsville is the the shortest track (.526-mile) and the only original track left on the Sprint Cup schedule.The first Cup Series champion, Red Byron, won the first Martinsville race in 1949 and there have been 129 races there overall. Richard Petty holds the all-time record with 15 wins, followed by Darrell Waltrip with 11 wins and Johnson with eight.———Kingsport driver Ronnie McCarty crossed the finish line first, but Derrick Lancaster of Christiansburg, Va., was awarded the victory this past Saturday night in the ‘Friends of Coal 125’ at Kingsport Speedway.Entering the third turn on the final lap, a car driven by Royce Peters, was sitting low against the inside wall with a blown engine. With both McCarty and Lancaster suddenly coming upon Peters’ stalled car, they had to move a groove higher to avoid running into the back of it.McCarty moved ahead and appeared headed to victory, but the caution flag waved. Track rules state that if a caution flag waves once the white flag has already been shown to the leader, the race is over and the finish reverts back to the previously lap. Even though McCarty crossed the start-finish line ahead of Lancaster, the victory was awarded to Lancaster.Chaos ensued on the cool-down lap. McCarty thought he had won the race, while Lancaster was unhappy over being moved up the track and spun out McCarty. The whole scenario led to a scuffle between crews and quite a bit of confusion before order was restored.Behind the lead duo, Providence Academy senior Hayden Woods finished third, followed by Lance Gatlin of Jefferson City and Virginia driver Kyle Barnes.Kenny Absher of Kingsport captured his third win of the season in the Pure 4 division, and Derek Lane of Kingsport won the Legends race.———Jacob Hayes, a 17-year-old from Greensboro, N.C., was the star of Sunday’s 26th annual Suzuki Top Gun Showdown at Muddy Creek Raceway. Hayes swept the featured 450 and 250 Pro Classes, edging out fellow Greensboro rider Kyle Peters for the 250 title.Johnson City rider was also among the top finishers in the 250 Pros. He wound up fourth overall after finishes of seventh in the first moto and fifth in the second moto.Hunter Hobbs of Johnson City was third in the 125cc 2-stroke amateur division and Tyler Orfield was third in the 4-stroke amateur class. Chance Markland of Elizabethton was second in the 65cc division for 10-11 year-olds.Two Kingsport racers captured class victories. Kevin Walker was the winner in two divisions, and Logan McConnell captured the 450B title.

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