As Phoenix beckons, the Chase is now a two-horse race

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Barring some cataclysmic occurrence over the final two races of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup, either Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth will soon be adding another championship to their trophy cases.

Johnson’s commanding victory in today’s AAA Texas 500 and Kenseth’s fourth-place result would appear to have effectively finished off the hopes of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon.

Harvick ran a quiet eighth – not nearly enough to do any damage against the top two contenders. Kyle Busch had a chance to win until a late-race penalty for speeding on pit road knocked him out of at least a Top-5 and sent him to a final outcome of 13th place.

Then there was Gordon, who suffered a tire failure and slammed the wall on Lap 74, effectively taking him out of the title conversation after he had just gotten back into it with his win one week ago at Martinsville. He would return to action late in the running, and finished 38th.

Harvick remains third in the standings, but is now 40 points behind Johnson, the new leader of the championship by seven points over Kenseth. Kyle Busch is now fourth at 52 points back, while Gordon tumbled all the way to sixth at 69 points back.

There’s no doubt now. With Phoenix International Raceway coming up next weekend and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway just two weeks out, the Chase has, for all intents and purposes, come down to two combatants.

Last week, Johnson dubbed his duel with Kenseth and, then, Gordon as a “dogfight.” Today, he likened the championship to a cage match after beating the Texas field black and blue.

“I’ve been watching a lot of MMA fighting lately, and you’ll fall into a rhythm and think somebody’s got the fight won – and it doesn’t end that way,” Johnson said. “That’s how this is gonna be. Matt didn’t have the best day and he still finished fourth…This thing is going to go to the last lap at Homestead, and it’s going to come down to mistakes.

“I’m very excited about our performance and what we did here, and we’ll enjoy this. But there’s still two weeks of very hard racing left ahead of us.”

Kenseth almost made a critical mistake this afternoon, when he was penalized for a pit road speeding penalty around the race’s midway point. But he had plenty of time to make up for the gaffe and he just about did the job.

With his rally to fourth over the second half of the race, Kenseth made sure that the big punch Johnson threw today wasn’t a knockout. Now comes Phoenix, a place where both of them were competitive back in the spring (Johnson finished second to Carl Edwards, while Kenseth finished seventh).

“I thought overall, tonight was a pretty good night,” Kenseth said of his work today. “If I wouldn’t have messed up, maybe we could have ran second. We’ll just go there, hope we have the car to win, be aggressive, race hard, and hope we can get the finish.”

Two races. Two drivers. And stock car racing’s ultimate prize, hanging in the balance.

This is going to be fun.

F1 2017 driver review: Max Verstappen

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Max Verstappen

Team: Red Bull Racing
Car No.: 33
Races: 20
Wins: 2
Podiums (excluding wins): 2
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 1
Points: 168
Laps Led: 133
Championship Position: 6th

Max Verstappen rise as a once-in-a-generation talent continued through the 2017 Formula 1 season, even if reliability issues meant we were made to wait for his best form to arrive.

Verstappen stole the show in a wet-dry Chinese Grand Prix by charging from 16th to seventh in the opening lap before ultimately finishing third for Red Bull, yet he would not grace the podium again until the Malaysian Grand Prix at the start of October.

A combination of power unit problems and on-track clashes saw Verstappen retire from seven of the 12 races in the intermittent period, with incidents in Spain and Austria being avoidable.

Perhaps most embarrassing of all was his stoppage due to a power unit failure in front of a grandstand swathed in orange at the Belgian Grand Prix, a race tens of thousands of Dutch fans had attended to cheer Verstappen on.

But when Verstappen got things right, it was – as he frequently quoted – simply, simply lovely. There was plenty left in the tank, as proven by his sheer domination of the races in Malaysia and Mexico as he took the second and third wins of his career.

Perhaps even more impressive was Verstappen’s victory over Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo in the qualifying head-to-head battle this year, an area the Australian has traditionally been strong in. Verstappen outqualifed his teammate 13-7 – it wasn’t even close…

All in all, Verstappen once again proved that on his day, he is one of the finest talents to grace F1 in recent years. With the right car underneath him next year, a title fight is certainly possible and will be the target – but there is always room for improvement.

And that is the scary part: Verstappen is only going to get better and better.

Season High: Dominating in Malaysia after an early pass on Lewis Hamilton.

Season Low: Crashing out on Lap 1 in Austria.