MARTINSVILLE, Va. » Matt Kenseth will be right behind Jimmie Johnson when the green flag drops at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday.
Johnson, the only man in front of him in the Sprint Cup championship points race, is starting second and Kenseth fourth.
Kenseth would love to be that close at the finish, too. Johnson has found success at the tricky 0.526-mile track shaped like a paper clip, while Kenseth has been frustrated here throughout his career.
Johnson, whose lead is four points, has eight wins at Martinsville in 23 starts.
Kenseth? No wins in 27 starts, and his best finish — second — came back in 2002.
But if there’s hope for the 2003 series champion, it came in the spring when Kenseth passed Johnson for the lead at one point and led for 96 laps, more than the rest of his career here combined.
He wound up 14th while Johnson won, but the early burst gave Kenseth a reason for optimism.
"This spring, at least the first half of the race, we were really good and really competitive and (it) really, really helped me be better because we had the car good," he said. "I don’t know. Some tracks feel natural to you and comes real easy, fits your style and other ones are just a lot more work.
"This one has just been, in general, a lot more work for me than other tracks."
Johnson has no such problem, at Martinsville or seemingly anywhere, in Kenseth’s eyes.
"People always say, ‘Man, it’s a great track for Jimmie,’ he said. "Is there a bad one?"
Johnson laughed when told Kenseth said "you can almost pencil the 48 in" at Martinsville. Johnson said he only needs to look at the starting lineup to realize he’s got plenty of competition.
"We have had a good run over the years," he said, slipping into a businesslike tone. "I understand where that comes from based on past history, but again it doesn’t guarantee anything for this weekend.
"At most it’s flattering, but we’ve got to go out there and get to work."
Besides, Kenseth has a crafty way of his own, as Johnson experienced at Charlotte this year.
"I think he ran around the top five — fifth, sixth, seventh — somewhere throughout the night," Johnson said of the race two weeks ago. "We were up there dominating the race and I started to think that we might pick up a couple of points on him. Then when the checkered fell he was one spot ahead of me.
"He is a great driver, great team, and there is no quit in those guys."
Kenseth also will have something of an advantage at the start, with three teammates surrounding Johnson. Denny Hamlin is on the pole to Johnson’s inside, with Kyle Busch and Kenseth behind him.
It’s not Kenseth’s style to pay attention to where Johnson or anyone else is during the race because it doesn’t change the way he races. Kenseth says he just races as hard as he can every race.
With four races to go, he likes his chances in the final three at Texas, Phoenix and Homstead, Fla. They’re all tracks where he feels his team can hit something that gives him a chance to win.
But first, there’s Sunday.
"Good news is we are still in it as of right now," he said before Friday’s qualifying runs. "Hopefully, we can have a great race on Sunday and still be in it when we leave here."