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NASCAR: Johnson, Kenseth keeping their rivalry on the lighter side – for now

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – As the Chase for the Championship winds down to its final four races, including Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Fast Relief Shot 500 at the Martinsville Speedway, the playful banter between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth as accelerated.

Despite being separated by just four points heading into Sunday’s race (1:30 p.m., ESPN), the two have exchanged several text messages in the past couple weeks. But unlike other stressful championship stretch drives, the two have been playful.

“For a guy that can come across dry at times, as we all know in here, he is awfully funny,” Johnson said.

Earlier this week Kenseth asked Johnson not “pester” him at Martinsville for ideas on setups or racing lines at the half-mile track. That’s amusing since Johnson has eight wins and 20 top-10 finishes in 23 career starts at Martinsville, while Kenseth is winless with eight top-10s in 27 races.

“I texted Jimmie a little while ago and told him that we’re friends and everything, but I would appreciate it if he wouldn’t ask me for any advice this weekend,” Kenseth said.

While the attitude could change in the last four races, the relationship between Johnson and Kenseth is dramatically different than seasons past. Two years ago Tony Stewart openly promised to beat Carl Edwards at the season-finale race in Homestead, Fla., and he backed it up with a win that clearly shook Edwards.

A year earlier, Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick waged a tremendous war of words against each other.

This year’s Chase has been a lot more reserved – so far.

“We have all grown and changed a lot over the years. I think that especially racing Matt with the experience that he has he understands the big picture, how to race, when to race, what to do,” Johnson said.

“I look forward to a battle all the way to the last lap at Homestead with him.”

ONE FOR THE TEAM: Although Denny Hamlin was knocked out of contention for the Chase months ago after missing four races with a broken back, he’s been the ultimate teammate for Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Hamlin not only has been testing new engines for the future, he’s been doing a lot of the groundwork to help his team in the Chase.

Although Hamlin had four career wins at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway, he tested at the track a week ago to gain information for Sunday’s race.

“I think Matt has learned a lot,” Hamlin said. “Really, coming here he had a big challenge, one of the biggest challenges was coming here in the spring for Matt was driving a car that drove completely different than he had ever driven before. Now he knows what to expect and obviously we came up with a setup for our teammates to run this weekend that looks like all three of them have some decent speed. I think he's going to be fine.”

Kenseth said just being at JGR has given him a different approach to some of the tracks that have presented problems in the past.

“You try to use all the tools you have and certainly, Denny and Kyle run pretty good everywhere, but especially [Martinsville] is one of Denny's best places so certainly I try to pay as much attention as I can,” Kenseth said.

The extra work has paid off so far. Hamlin won the pole position Friday with a track-record lap of 99.595 mph, while Busch was third and Kenseth was fourth.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
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