Fitness pals Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth in step and on cycle off the track

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CHARLOTTE – Locked in a tight struggle with Matt Kenseth for the 2013 Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie Johnson once ran 20 motivational miles in honor of his rival’s car number.

If the 2016 title again comes down to Johnson and Kenseth, that sort of near-marathon with purpose might get awkward – because Kenseth might be right alongside this time.

The NASCAR stars have become fitness buddies over the past years, taking weekly bike rides on Tuesdays on trails around the Charlotte area.

Wednesday, Johnson and Kenseth rode 130.4 miles in a 7-hour, 21-minute ride from Asheville, North Carolina, to Charlotte as part of a People for Bikes awareness and fund-raising event.

Johnson’s reputation as a workout maven is well established, but Kenseth admittedly avoided much physical activity outside the car. “It’d take me a week to run 20 miles, even if somebody was chasing me,” he once joked when told about Johnson’s feat.

But about a year ago, the 2003 champion began riding with Johnson and joined a group of team members who often go mountain biking on Saturdays near whatever track is being visited by NASCAR.

“I’ve been very impressed with his bike handling skills,” Johnson said of Kenseth. “I’ve taken race car drivers on mountain bike rides, and they’re scared for their lives. They’re going to wreck at any point. Growing up in Wisconsin, (Kenseth) had dirt bikes, he rode snowmobiles. He has a very good sense of where he is on the bike.

“He has some really good natural skills.”

Kenseth’s longest ride before Wednesday was a 60-miler in Florida during Speedweeks, but he was in good shape after more than doubling the distance. Riding in packs of several dozen riders greatly helps reduce the amount of exertion despite traveling at an average speed of 17.6 mph.

“It’s fun to ride with a group,” Kenseth said. “It’s a lot different. There’s drafting, strategy, knowing when to go and not. It’s a little more fun.”

He also went mountain biking last month in Phoenix, helping alleviate the cabin fever in his motorhome when his family doesn’t join him on the road.

“I’ve been doing it for so long that when Katie and the kids aren’t there, you’re just dying to get out of the motorhome,” he said. “Plus, it’s great exercise and keeps you in shape and all that as well. It’s been fun.

I started running a couple of weeks ago. When the kids are in school, I’ll put (youngest daughter) Clara in a stroller, and (wife) Katie and I will go for a run for a few miles. I couldn’t do 20. I could probably run 6 to 7.”

Kenseth, who recently turned 44, has three daughters under the age of 7, and the rededication to fitness has helped increase his energy level.

“I’m trying to spend a couple of days a week in a gym then try to cycle and run a few times a week,” he said. “Just trying to stay in better shape. As you get older, it’s not easier. It’s always harder. So I feel like you’ve got to work harder at it. The more physically fit you are, the more mentally fit you are as well. It all goes hand in hand.”

Matt and Katie Kenseth are entered next month in the Jimmie Johnson Foundation 5K, and the event’s namesake already has been sought out for advice.

“So (Matt’s) asking me, ‘So this running thing, how does it happen?’” Johnson said with a chuckle. “I told him, ‘You put your shoes on and go.’ ”