Avondale, Ariz. The closer he gets to winning his first Winston Cup championship, the harder it is for Matt Kenseth to ignore the pressure.
Kenseth has earned the nickname "Mr. Consistency" this season, leading the season standings since the fourth race.
Going into today's Checker Auto Parts 500, Kenseth has only one victory, but he owns a series-high 23 top-10 finishes in 33 starts. He has gone consecutive races without a top-10 finish only twice.
Now down to the last three races of 2003, Kenseth is feeling just a little uneasy.
"We've been in this position almost all year, and as it winds down you definitely think about it more," Kenseth said. "I wouldn't say there's more pressure, but you definitely think about it more."
He goes into the 500-kilometer (312-mile) race at Phoenix International Raceway holding a 258-point lead over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the season standings.
Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and four-time champion Jeff Gordon also are within 300 points of the lead and technically have a shot at the title.
If Kenseth, who won here last year, wins and leads the most laps today, he would clinch the title only if the rest of the contenders finish below 30th.
Regardless, Kenseth needs only to finish 21st or better in each of the last three races to win the championship, no matter what the others do.
Still, he has concerns.
"I worry about things going wrong more than anything else," he said. "Breaking or getting a flat tire or wrecking -- something like that and you can lose a bunch of points."
Kenseth saw that happen when he finished 33rd with an engine failure at Talladega Sept. 28, then 36th after getting caught up in a crash Oct. 5 at Kansas, losing 177 of a season-high 436-point lead.
Since then, Kenseth has finished eighth, 13th and 11th to stay in control of the championship chase.
Gordon, who goes into today with two straight victories, doesn't expect Kenseth to fold.
"Matt has kept his cool and those guys have been doing all the right things most of the year," Gordon said. "There's no reason to think they're going to stop doing that now."
"Everything's going all right," Kenseth said. "Maybe we were a little stressed after Talladega and Kansas when we lost all those points.
"But, other than that, it's been business as usual," he added "especially after last weekend, having a decent finish and gaining a few points on second place."
The biggest problem Kenseth has had this season is qualifying.
He will start today's race 37th in the 43-car field, the 16th time this season Kenseth has started outside the top 20 and the 26th time outside the top 10.
Johnson will start third, Gordon fourth, Earnhardt 11th and Harvick 13th.