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September 21. 2013 11:08PM

Allen Lessels on Motor Sports: Everything runs through Big 3


NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Matt Kenseth (right) celebrates in victory lane with teammate Kyle Busch (left) after winning the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway last week. (Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports)

LOUDON -- They are Sprint Cup's Big Three. At least for a few more hours.

Perhaps Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon will take advantage of their up-front starting spots and dominate things this afternoon in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and squeeze themselves squarely into the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship mix.

Maybe Clint Bowyer, rolling along just a couple of weeks ago until the raucousness at Richmond derailed him a bit, will capitalize at a track he loves and turn things around.

Or might it be Kevin Harvick or Carl Edwards, who yet to have a say in this 2013 Chase?

Any and all of them must deal with the Big Three - Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

They have been the class of the Sprint Cup series all season, they sit in the top three in points going into this afternoon's race and the chances are at least decent that one of them will succeed Brad Keselowski as champion.

They are the most productive Cup driver of the century, a guy looking for his second title in his first year with a new team and a guy trying to turn the disappointment of last season into his first championship.

Johnson won a record five straight titles from 2006-2010; Kenseth won in 2003 and joined Joe Gibbs Racing from Roush Fenway this year; and Busch barely missed last year's Chase and dedicated himself to learning from the experience.

Twenty-seven races in this Sprint Cup season are down. There are nine left. The Big Three have between them won more than half the races so far.

Kenseth has won six, including last week's Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway. Johnson and Bush have won four each.

No other Cup driver has won more than two races this season.

"Someone is going to have to show me more than those three have," said 1999 champion and ESPN analyst Dale Jarrett. "They've separated themselves throughout the year."

Johnson looked to be running away with the whole thing a little over a month ago, well on his way to changing his nickname from Five-Time to Six-Pack. Then came an ugly August-into-September run of four races.

He was 40th at Michigan, 36th at Bristol, 28th at Atlanta and 40th again at Richmond.

"He was showing some signs of maybe he is human," Bowyer said during a promotional appearance at Swenson Granite's quarry in Concord before the Richmond race. "A month ago, I was thinking the other, that maybe he was Superman or something."

Johnson bounced back from his struggles and led 40 laps on the way to a fifth-place finish last week at Chicagoland.

He may not have been Superman, but he re-established himself as one of the guys to beat, if there had been any doubt about that.

"The August stretch is now hopefully long and far behind us in our rearview mirror," Johnson said before qualifying ninth on Friday.

He's worried not that his last win came at Daytona on July 6.

"When you get to the Chase, you can't look back at the regular season," Johnson said. "It's a 10-race stretch of its own. With that in mind, I haven't won in a week. I finished fifth and had a shot to win last week. . . . So, blinders on, focus on the No. 48."

Likewise, Kenseth and Kyle Busch, teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing, will focus on the No. 20 and No. 18, respectively.

Kenseth has made the transition to his new team appear seamless and has already hit a career-high in wins.

"I just tried to fit into what they were doing," Kenseth said.

"Obviously they were having a lot of success. . . .Certainly I feel like I've had things to add, but I've really tried to fit into their system and then go from there."

Bush helped recruit Kenseth to the team.

"He's had a good sense this year of adding to our program and knowing what to add," Busch said.

Last year, Busch got edged out of the Chase in the last race at Richmond.

"We had a pretty devastating August and September," Busch said. "And then we missed the Chase and came in with the mentality to run the rest of the year hard and to try and prepare ourselves and put ourselves in our own little Chase to see if we could compete and we did that. We competed well."

They carried the approach over to this season. Now, he's a contender for his first championship as one of the Big Three.

"As painful as last year was I think it served Kyle well, as a person and as a driver," Jarrett said. "I see a change in him. Whether it's this sport or another, sometimes you have to be knocked down to get your focus right."Blinders on.

Nine races to go.

alessels@unionleader.com On Twitter: @AllenLessels


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