If there is a sense of déjà vu surrounding this weekend's Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway, it's because there is.
For the second consecutive season Jimmie Johnson is fresh off a victory at Texas Motor Speedway and just as he did last year, Johnson holds a seven-point lead in the standings.
The similarities end there, however.
A year ago Johnson was coming off an intrepid door handle-to-door handle battle with Brad Keselowski. At the time, the two were ranked first and second in points, and Johnson's victory was seen as a decisive blow to the chances of his challenger. Keselowski had never before been in a title fight, and it was natural to think that Johnson would continue his push to win his sixth championship.
But the narrative had a different ending than was expected. A blown tire at Phoenix and then a parts failure in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway derailed Johnson's bid. With the door flung wide open, Keselowski capitalized and easily won the championship.
This time Johnson is engaged not with a brash upstart, but a sage veteran every bit his equal.
That driver is Matt Kenseth, who has a season-high seven victories and has his own championship trophy sitting on his mantle.
"I think Matt just from his personality standpoint is a little more controlled," said crew chief Chad Knaus when asked to compare Kenseth to Keselowski. "He's a little more mature. He's been in the sport for a long time. I think he's just a little more even keel, so that makes him a little more challenging to get off kilter."
By any statistical measure, Johnson has the decided edge at Phoenix, with logic dictating he should be able to add to his point lead Sunday. In 20 career starts, the five-time Cup champion has four wins, 13 top-fives and 16 top-10s, with an average finish of 6.4 and 932 laps led.
Johnson's gaudy stats are in sharp contrast to his rival, who has historically has struggled on the one-mile oval. While Kenseth does have a Phoenix victory on his résumé (2002), he has just five career top-five finishes and nine top-10s with an average finish of 17.2 and 212 laps led. And he hasn't placed better than sixth since 2007, a worrisome trend for a driver who can ill afford to lose any more ground.
Yet Kenseth's 2013 campaign has been defined by him excelling where he has otherwise struggled. This season alone has seen him score career-first wins at Darlington Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, two tracks where he admittedly isn't at his best.
And if a further reminder is needed that past performance doesn't always equal future results, there is no better example than two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway. The half-mile bullring where Johnson is at his absolute best, and Kenseth is frequently is not, produced a stark reversal of fortunes.
Johnson was his typical stellar self, out front for 123 laps en route to a fifth-place finish. But Kenseth turned in a noteworthy run that saw him lead a race-high 202 laps -- more laps than he had ever led in 27 Martinsville starts combined -- and finished runner-up to Jeff Gordon. Instead of losing points to Johnson as expected, Kenseth in fact moved into a tie atop the standings.
"I thought [when] we went to Martinsville we [would] come out of Martinsville with a good spread," said Johnson's team owner, Rick Hendrick. "I didn't think Matt would run that well at Martinsville, and there he was almost winning the race."
Kenseth's propensity to do the unexpected this season is in part why Johnson believes this year's seven-point advantage is vastly different. And he's not alone. When asked if Johnson was in control, Hendrick was adamant in saying "absolutely not."
"I felt real good going to Phoenix last year, and I thought we were in good shape and we had a problem," Hendrick said.
Call it doubt, trepidation or nerves, Johnson saw his 48 team unravel at this time last November. He and his team have also thrown away numerous potential victories this season, and a group once viewed as impervious to pressure is no longer seen as unflappable.
In short, there are chinks in the armor that never used to exist.
"Last year we were in this position, and we didn't do it," Hendrick said. "It fired us up. It fired Jimmie and Chad up. But they can't work any harder. I think they're as good as they've ever been and maybe better because they're seasoned. Now they've lost it a couple of years in a row and they want it bad this year."
Twelve months later, the only thing left to do is see if history again repeats itself in the Phoenix desert. For Johnson's sake, he better hope not.