LONG POND – Matt Kenseth furrowed his brow at the mere suggestion Jimmie Johnson had spiraled toward a slump.
Only a chump would count out the champ after an 0-for-11 start.
“I don’t think anybody else was really being like, ‘Oh man, Jimmie’s finally not winning. This is our shot, he’s done,’” Kenseth said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that he won those two races and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he wins this weekend.”
Coming off consecutive wins in the Coca-Cola 600 and at Dover, Johnson stormed into Pocono Raceway trying to become the first driver to win three straight since 2007. The last driver to threepeat? Johnson, of course. He steamrolled to five straight victories in 2007 en route to 10 total and the second of five straight championships. He won his sixth last season and has stamped himself as a heavy favorite to add a record-tying seventh title.
He’s certainly at the right track to make it 3-for-3: Johnson has three career wins at Pocono, including a dominant victory last June.
“We can swing for the fences here, which makes that a lot of fun,” Johnson said.
It’s tough to guess what made it tougher for the rest of the field – a winless Johnson on a determined hunt for the first checkered flag or the No. 48 Chevrolet on a winning streak and wanting more.
“(The media) asked me before if I was worried about Jimmie because he was on a losing streak,” Carl Edwards said. “I am worried about him now for the opposite reason.”
Johnson’s two wins make him a lock for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field, which means he can use what’s left of the season before the final 10 races as sort of a test session to fine-tune his setups on the 48. Crew chief Chad Knaus has always been at his best with time to prepare.
Johnson’s six championships are behind only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt’s record seven titles. Knaus trails only Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman, who won eight championships – seven with Petty and one with Terry Labonte.
Here are five things to know for Sunday’s race:
That’s gotta be Kahne: Kasey Kahne is winless, has only one top five and is mired in 18th in the standings. He starts 27th today, one more sign that he won’t turn his year around at Pocono Raceway. Kahne, a two-time winner at Pocono, met for an extended lunch this week with crew chief Kenny Francis to discuss the No. 5 Chevrolet’s woes. “Sometimes not talking, neither of us get too upset at each other, I see that kind of hurting you at times,” Kahne said. “Maybe you need to get it out there and talk about it.”
Heating up: Miami and the Spurs had to play Game 1 of the NBA Finals in a near heat wave when the air conditioning went out in San Antonio. Edwards said it’s just as uncomfortable inside a steamy stock car for several hours each Sunday. “At Dover during the race, I was lifting my heels off the floor on the straightaway because it was burning my heels,” Edwards said. “Everybody does that all the time but the first few times you realize, ‘Wow, I think my heel is burning.’ You don’t realize everything in the car is that hot.”
Busch’s start: Kurt Busch can be thankful his win at Martinsville all but assured him a spot in the Chase because the rest of his season has been close to a disaster with only two top 10s and five DNFs. Busch, who was sixth in the Indianapolis 500 in a failed attempt at The Double, hoped his front-row qualifying run at Pocono Raceway could spark his season. He starts behind Denny Hamlin.
Curb appeal: Pocono Raceway removed the curb on Turn 2, also known as the Tunnel Turn because of its location above the entrance to the infield. The curb shot drivers up on the 2½-mile track and was widely considered one of the toughest in NASCAR. Pocono instead created a 15-foot apron designed to improve safety and let drivers feel more comfortable attempting faster speeds through the turn. “That curb before was kind of a race killer,” 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski said.
Google maps: Pocono Raceway became the first track to partner with Google Business View Program, a division of Google Maps, and Aerial Media Productions. Still photos and 360-view Photo Spheres, including the Google Tour, are being shot by Business Photo America, a Google-trusted agency. The footage is expected to be ready by the end of the month.