This is the fifth in a series of stories reflecting on Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR success from those who competed against him or with him at Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson has returned to the industry as a stakeholder in Petty GMS and will run select races in 2023.
The question is simple: What was it like to compete against Jimmie Johnson?
The answer is quintessential Matt Kenseth.
“It sucked racing against him, because I got beat so much,” Kenseth says and then laughs. “I think of a lot of different times and races where I thought I was going to come out on top and didn’t. Even in 2013, with the championship. We won the first two races of the (playoffs), and he comes back and wins the third. We ran really well, and he still comes through and wins the thing.”
One race in particular sticks with Kenseth all these years later. While Kenseth doesn’t recall the year, it should come to mind for those who watched that fall 2007 race at Texas Motor Speedway when Kenseth starts recalling the events.
“I was leading the race and it was toward the end of the race, and he got to second, and he was catching me at a pretty fast clip,” says Kenseth. “He was going to get around me and win, most likely. We were better on the short run, and he was better on the long run. I can’t remember the exact point situation except that he did not need to win — he had a pretty good size lead in the championship race.
“So, I’m thinking to myself, ‘OK, he’s not going to put himself in a position to crash finishing second. He’s still most likely going to win the championship without a catastrophe, but he’s not going to get there and get in a spot to lose.’”
Kenseth took the lead from Ryan Newman off a restart with 29 laps to go, while Johnson lined up fifth. The hunt was on with less than 20 laps to go as Johnson began closing on Kenseth and trying to find a way to get by. Even the television broadcast crew at that time, ESPN’s Andy Petree, Rusty Wallace and Jerry Punch, said Johnson didn’t need to do anything to get himself in trouble by battling Kenseth.
But that wasn’t how it happened. Kenseth fought on older tires with Johnson on new tires. Kenseth ran high while Johnson tried down low. Lap after lap, the two went at it, putting on some of the best racing the series has seen.
“He gets underneath me and I get on his door and make it hard as I can and get back past him once,” recalls Kenseth. “He gets underneath me (again), I crowd him as much as I can to make it where his car is as loose as it can, and I’m like, ‘He’s not going to take a chance on wrecking us both, he’s going to back out of this thing and finish second.’
“Man, we raced side-by-side and he just raced his guts out and sideways. Most people wouldn’t have gotten that pass done. Most people would have either crashed themselves or crashed both of us and not made that (work). It shows not only how smart he is but what a fierce competitor he is. If he had a chance to win a race, he didn’t care that he didn’t need it or not, there was never a race that he was in that he didn’t want to win. He was so good that people somewhat took advantage of him, and in that situation, I wouldn’t have raced anybody else like that; I would have given them more room because I know anyone else would have wrecked us both.
“But it being him, I’m like, ‘Well, he’s going to keep control of his car and not crash but not be able to do it and get by me. So, he’s probably going to slow up a bit and finish second.’ I wanted to make it as tough as I could. And he still came out on top. That’s the one finish of a race that I always think about when I think about how good he really is.”
Johnson cleared Kenseth off Turn 2 with two laps to go. It was his third straight win in the playoffs as he marched to his second straight championship.
In trying to understand what made Johnson one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, Kenseth echoes the sentiment of many with Johnson taking advantage of his situation. Hendrick Motorsports had great equipment, and Johnson’s race team was special. It was also a race team that didn’t change much over the years.
Even still, Kenseth doesn’t take anything away from how fierce Johnson was as a competitor. As he showed Kenseth in Texas, Johnson could drive the car on edge as well or better than anyone. No matter what, it always seemed like Johnson could come through in crunch time.
“To be the best, you have to beat the best, so you always wanted to beat him,” says Kenseth. “If you don’t have him, there is always going to be somebody else, but certainly, I look back and (think) I’d arguably have another championship, maybe two, without him around. And maybe some more wins.
“He certainly made everybody better. I did enjoy racing with him. More than anything, I did enjoy getting to know him as a man and during the last four or five years of our careers on the road, cycling together and talking about life and becoming better friends. That’s for sure my favorite part, but it was great racing with him.”
Kenseth’s only championship came in 2003. Johnson finished second that season.
Johnson’s first title came in 2006, and Kenseth finished second in the standings. Kenseth also finished second in a Johnson championship season in 2013.
In head-to-head race wins, Johnson beat Kenseth five times (Charlotte 2003; Las Vegas 2006; Indianapolis 2006; Texas 2007; Charlotte 2016). Kenseth got the best of Johnson twice (Fontana 2006; Bristol 2015).
In discussing his friend and once rival, Kenseth also praised Johnson’s ability to fit into any situation seamlessly. Johnson, said Kenseth, is easy to talk to, whether at the racetrack or on a three-hour bike ride. He remembers people’s names and fits in at the racetrack or a boardroom.
As Johnson returns to competition on a limited basis this season, Kenseth won’t compete against him, having left the series after 2020. But Kenseth isn’t someone who needs to be reminded of just how good Johnson is and how unbelievable his accomplishments were.
“I lived it,” Kenseth says. “I’ve thought that (about Johnson) for years and years and years and years and like I said, unfortunately, I was on the losing side of that way more times than the winning. I don’t know if I was ever on the winning side of it.
“When you do get away from the sport for a while, you certainly tend to reflect more on the past, and when I think of different racing stories, he’s in a lot of them, for sure.”