Thursday, November 18, 2010

Chase Coverage: Phoenix Wrap-Up Report

Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR

With every race the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup becomes more exciting. At Phoenix, it was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. One Chaser's winless streak ended in the desert, while the dominant car - and championship contender behind it - lost the race as well as ground in the standings. 

Points leader Denny Hamlin seemed all but certain to run way with Sunday's race in the desert. Then everything changed as it all came down to fuel mileage.

The nearly 70-point lead Hamlin had built up during the race was nearly wiped out as the fuel-mileage gamble worked against him and in Jimmie Johnson's and Kevin Harvick's favor. We now have the closest points battle in the history of the Chase with one race to go. This sets up a final blowout for the title at Homestead, which could come down to the last lap.

A delighted Carl Edwards couldn't wait to "flip" after a 70-race winless stretch, the end of a rare perfect weekend for the driver 4th in the standings.

How did you favorite Chase driver come out in the fuel-mileage game at Phoenix? Our 12 contributors bring you the story on each of the top 12 after the Kobalt Tools 500.

1. Denny Hamlin - Holly Machuga
Denny Hamlin continues to lead the points standings with 15 points over Jimmie Johnson after a 12th-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway.

The team had a great run Sunday and led the majority of the race. What ruined their day was being 12 laps short on fuel. Unfortunately, Hamlin was forced to conserve fuel and fell to the 12th position. This opened the rest of the race up for anyone else to win.

Post race, Denny was asked what he needs to do to win this Chase come Homestead. He answered, "For me I guess as soon as I leave Phoenix, I have to leave Phoenix in Phoenix."

To clinch that championship spot, Hamlin has a few options. One, he can lead the most laps and come in second. Or, two, he can win the race.

If it comes to a tie with Jimmie Johnson, the driver with the most wins will be the champion. Denny would overrule Johnson with eight wins.

With one more race to go, the Chase has become extremely interesting. We'll all be watching the FedEx team during the final race in the 2010 Sprint Cup season.

2. Jimmie Johnson - Rebecca Kivak
Jimmie Johnson's dream of a fifth Sprint Cup title looked like it was fading into the rear-view mirror while points leader Denny Hamlin dominated Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500. The driver of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet battled a loose racecar off and on and simply lacked the speed to keep up with the No. 11. But in the end, it was fuel mileage - something that had bitten the No. 48 team in the past - that would keep Johnson's title hopes alive.

Johnson started Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 from the 21st position. For the first half of the race, the four-time Cup champion reported a lose condition in the center and tight in the corners. It took Johnson until lap 70 to break into the top 10. When some shade fell upon the track in turns 3 and 4, the car tightened up, improving the handling and allowing Johnson to pick up positions. By lap 120 he was running in the top 5. Once the sun came back out, however, Johnson once again found himself struggling with a loose condition, but continued to run steadily in the top 5.

Benefiting Johnson was his new No. 48 pit crew. The former over-the-wall team for the No. 24 nailed their stops in roughly 13 seconds or less, allowing Johnson to maintain or gain positions on pit road. Despite the improvements in the pits, though, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus couldn't get the speed they wanted from the No. 48 car. In an atypical Phoenix race for Johnson, he never led a lap or emerged as a contender for the win.

The game-changing moment in the 312-lap event turned out to be a yellow-flag pit stop on lap 224. Johnson and Hamlin both pitted on this stop. In his post-race comments, Johnson said he had started conserving fuel early in the last long green-flag run. Then with 25 laps to go, Knaus started coaxing Johnson to save fuel, and he went into ultra conservation mode. Hamlin, however, didn't have enough fuel and pitted with 14 to go.

Johnson was able to stretch the gas in his tank over the last 88 laps. For a team that has struggled with fuel mileage, the all-or-nothing gamble for the No. 48 paid off Sunday as Johnson crossed the finish line fifth. He gained 18 points on Hamlin and trails him by 15 going into the season finale at Homestead. Johnson's hunt for a fifth title is very much alive, setting up an exciting showdown for the championship.

3. Kevin Harvick - Amber Arnold
Who knew that forgetting a lug nut on a pit stop could actually end up being a good thing? This was the case for Harvick and the 29 team in Phoenix. 

Harvick ended up having to come back down pit road to fix it when Gil Martin, Harvick’s crew chief, made the call for fuel. After a long green flag run, Harvick managed to work himself up to the 6th position when the checkered flag flew. 

Phoenix was also a race that moved Harvick a little closer to possibly claiming the championship trophy in Homestead. Denny Hamlin finishing behind Harvick has brought him just 46 points out of first and 31 points our of 2nd. Going into Homestead the objective is clear for the Shell/Penzoil team. Win the race and win their first Sprint Cup championship!


4. Carl Edwards - Amanda Ebersole
After a two-year drought, Carl Edwards and the 99 Aflac team made it back to Victory Lane. This weekend could not have been any better for Edwards. He won the Nationwide race (after starting from second) then claimed the pole for the Cup race, setting a new track record, and also won every single practice that was held this weekend.

Carl and crew chief Bob Osborne made great calls that had him in contention throughout the entire race. Carl was battling a loose condition for a while, but Bob made the appropriate changes and Carl regained his track position. He, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch battled for first, second and third throughout the race. Then the race came down to fuel mileage, something everyone dreads. But Carl has always been great at saving fuel, so I knew this was his moment …barring any fluke, he could do it!

With 12 laps to go, Denny Hamlin had to pit. That left Carl in a good position over the second-place car of Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya then ran out of fuel .... and Carl sailed to the checkered flag with a 4.77-second margin over second-place Ryan Newman.

Carl snapped a 70-race winless streak, his last victory coming at Homestead in 2008, and has now earned his way into the All-Star Race next May. I guess you can say that this is one drought that ended in the desert.

Carl celebrated his victory with his now trademark backflip and added to that a run through the crowd with the fans. Victory Lane also saw the markings of the Aflac duck - white feathers were thrown by the crew in celebration.

Post race, Carl made sure to thank his sponsors, team and fans who have not given up on him these past two years. “I think it’s something that we needed for our confidence,” Carl said. “We needed it as a payoff for all the hard work the guys have put in at the shop, the engine department. It would be nice to get another one at Homestead. But to go into the off-season knowing that we’re getting better, looks like we have a legitimate shot to finish fourth in the points, to be in the All-Star Race next season, to have that energy going forward, all those things are good.”

As a devoted Carl fan, this was the best race weekend in a long time for me! Sure, I have loved the Nationwide wins, but everyone always says to me, “When is he going to get a Cup win?” Now I can say he did!

I never thought I would be one of those fans to get all emotional over sports of any type, but when Carl took that checkered flag Sunday night, I got all misty-eyed and as I recount this now I also am. I have never given up hope on Carl and the 99 team and am so proud as a fan to see them back in Victory Lane, where they belong!

5. Matt Kenseth - Whitney Richards
After their second-place finish at Texas last weekend, Matt Kenseth and his crew came to Phoenix International Raceway looking to be contenders for the win again. With a decent starting position, Kenseth looked strong as the No. 17 Valvoline Ford cracked the top 10 within the opening laps of the race. However, an uncharacteristic pit road mistake from the No. 17 crew had Kenseth off sequence with the leaders late in the race. The team was able to battle back and finish seventh.

Kenseth took the green flag from the 15th position on Sunday for the Kobalt Tools 500. Just 10 laps later, he was up to ninth. He remained in that position, and didn’t report much about his car’s handling other than the No. 17 Ford was tight in the middle of the turns. A caution on lap 60 gave Kenseth the chance to inform crew chief Jimmy Fennig that the car was still tight in the middle of the turns and also very aero-sensitive. Kenseth pitted under the caution for four tires, fuel and air pressure adjustments. His pit crew was able to help him gain two positions to restart seventh. He was able to maintain track position until around lap 95 when he reported the car was lacking rear grip. The tight-handling issue was still there too.

Another caution gave Kenseth the chance to pit for four tires, fuel and more air pressure adjustments on lap 102. He restarted 11th, and worked his way back inside the top 10 when green-flag stops began to cycle through. After staying out to lead lap 173, he pitted and the team made more air pressure adjustments as well as a trackbar adjustment. The changes helped, but eventually the No. 17 Ford became loose. Under caution on lap 235, Fennig called Kenseth down pit road for a two-tire stop in an attempt to gain track position. Unfortunately, a loose lug nut forced Kenseth to come back down pit road, resulting in him restarting 18th.

The race came down to basically who had the fuel to finish among the leaders. Before the race was over, Kenseth had to make a stop for fuel, but he battled back to take the checkered flag from the seventh position. He is fifth in the standings, 311 points behind leader Denny Hamlin.

6. Jeff Gordon - Genevieve Cadorette
Jeff Gordon started the race in 22nd position in Sunday’s Kolbalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway in Arizona. He believes that a "tightening" in the track is what prevented the team from getting a better finish.

By the time he pitted around lap 59, he was in 17th position; after pitting for four tires and an air pressure adjustment, he continued to move ahead until he was in 11th. He was heard on his radio telling his crew, “I’m a little bit too tight getting the center of the corner.” An issue during the lap 102 pit stop had dropped him back to 16th.

He was later heard saying that his car was “not bad by myself, but plowing tight as soon as I get near someone.” His crew chief Steve Letarte called for major changes to the chassis during the lap 224 pit stop.

He returned to pit road 13 laps later for more adjustments and four new tires. He restarted 15th and moved ahead to 11th in time to finish the race.

"[The setup] at the end of the race was close to how we had it at the beginning," Gordon said after the race. "We adjusted on it and adjusted on it, and then we brought it back close to what we started with when those changes didn't work.

"It was fast at the start, but I guess the track just tightened up too much and we couldn't get a hold of it.”

Gordon is sixth in points for next week's final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Ford 400 season finale and the Cup championship.

7. Kyle Busch - Lindi Bess
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series found itself in Phoenix this past weekend. A race that should have been about strategy came down to fuel mileage in the end. Kyle and the #18 Toyota Camry have 12 starts at the Phoenix track, six of which were in the JGR Toyota. Of these six races, including Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500, Kyle has zero top 5s, three top 10s, an average start of 6, and average finish now a 11.33.

In Sunday's race, Kyle started in the seventh position. The race began with its first caution within the first two laps. Once back out on the track, Kyle was able to move up to the fourth position, behind brother Kurt. Lap 60 brought out the second caution, in which Kyle Busch pits and took four tires and a track bar adjustment. By lap 164, Kyle took second from Carl Edwards. Soon Kyle got his five extra points by taking the lead from his teammate, Denny Hamlin.

The field went through green flag pit stops and Kyle joins them after securing his extra points. When the field reset, Kyle was in third, right in front of four-time champion Jimmie Johnson, and Hamlin had regained the lead. After caution number 4, the field reset after pitting and Kyle took the lead, bringing the field past the green flag. Kyle led a total of six laps. In my opinion, the race had been extremely slow. It wasn’t until the end when drivers began to worry about fuel - and whether or not they had enough - when things began to pick up a bit. The #18 finished in 13th behind points leader and teammate Hamlin.

Next weekend is a first for many of us NASCAR fans. By now in recent years, it was pretty much decided on who would drive away with the Sprint Cup championship. Not this year - we still have three who are in the running. I for one can’t wait until Homestead.

8. Greg Biffle - Stacie Ball
For me, the second to last race in the Chase was a complete nail-biter. I am shocked I have any nails left over after watching the race from Phoenix International Raceway. After Biffle’s amazing finish in Texas, I really had no idea what to expect these last two races. I was so happy to see that he was driving for the win, even if it was not totally in the cards for him.

The Pit Bulls sent Biffle out 13th for the restart on lap 65, but the car still seemed to be lacking grip. He was back in 15th when the next caution came out on lap 100. The team made another round of adjustments and sent Biffle out in the 12th position. A few laps later, however, he was back in the 16th position with a loose racecar when a round of green-flag pit stops began on lap 168.

The team picked up three positions in the pits and Biffle was 13th on the board when the round of green-flag stops was complete on lap 176. During the next run, he reported that the Scotch Brand Ford was still too loose but a caution on lap 222 allowed him to pit for further adjustments. Those adjustments, however, made the car too tight so he pitted during the next caution on lap 235 for further changes while some of the frontrunners opted to stay out.

That pit stop would prove to be pivotal for the 3M team as the race went green to the checkered flag from that point. He restarted 14th on lap 239 and drove up to seventh before informing the team that the car had lost grip again. He dropped back to ninth, which is where he was running when some of the cars in front of him began to run out of fuel. Biffle was able to capitalize and drive to a fourth-place finish.

“We weren’t that good but the fuel mileage worked out for us at the end,” said Biffle. “We had a top-10 car but we want to be better than that so we’ll keep working on it. Hopefully, we’ll run a little better in the spring. We’ll take this top 5 and get ready to try to win next weekend in Homestead.”

Biffle and the 3M team moved up to eighth in the point standings. They are 349 points behind the points leader and only 38 points out of fifth. A few weeks back, I did not think this was going to be possible; I hoped, though.

I am really excited to see what is going to happen next week in Miami! All I know is that this has been the best Chase in the last five years. I have been enjoying each and every race for the different challenges in which they have brought, the good, the bad and the ugly. Thanks for a great Chase, boys!

9. Tony Stewart - Unique Hiram
Fuel mileage was the name of the game at Phoenix International Raceway and it was also the reason that Tony Stewart ended up crossing the finish line in the 17th position (three positions up from where he originally began the race). The Kobalt Tools 500 proved to be another thorn in this race team's side when they decided to take the chance to stay out versus coming in for fuel on lap 235.  Unfortunately, everyone behind him hit pit road for service in order to have an opportunity at a great finish when the checkered flag waved.

There is one more race left in the Sprint Cup Chase (Homestead-Miami) and this team will rally as they always have to complete the season on a high note. Although most eyes will be on the top three contenders
(Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick), it will present the opportunity for one of the other Chase drivers to capture the win. You can bet that Stewart and the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet team will be fighting to the finish.

10. Kurt Busch - Rebecca Kivak
Phoenix proved to be the high point so far in the 2010 Chase for Kurt Busch. The Penske driver swapped the lead with Carl Edwards early on in the Kobalt Tools 500 and came out on the right side of the fuel-mileage game, finishing ninth. Busch's finish was his second top 10 in the Chase and allowed him to climb back into the top 10 in points.

With a top-3 starting spot, Busch led 20 laps in the beginning of Sunday's race. But his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge started to fade in the middle of the event as Busch reported a tight condition that was loose in the center. As he battled the ill-handling car, Busch fell back as far as 15th.

Busch was one of a group of drivers who pitted on lap 224 after the fourth caution of the race, but he also pitted again on lap 235 after the fifth yellow flag. The stop ensured Busch had enough fuel to make it through the end of the race. The adjustments the No. 2 crew made on that last stop helped free up the car, working in Busch's favor over the final green-flag run.

"We’ll take the top-10 finish. Our Miller Lite Dodge was a little temperamental today. We did our job on Friday (in qualifying) to get a solid starting position and we just weren’t able to capitalize on the early track position that we had," Busch said. "It was a solid day, but we need to get a better balance on the car.  For us, it comes down to working on getting the front end to work better in the center of the corner.”

Busch now sits 10th in points, but is only 5 ahead of Clint Bowyer in 11th place.

11. Clint Bowyer - Amy McHargue
Clint Bowyer began Sunday's race in the seventh position on the track and the 11th position in the Chase standings. Bowyer began slipping back through the field early and was in the wrong place at the wrong time on lap 20 when the #6 and #77 got into one another, catching Clint in the middle. There was some right rear damage; by lap 35 Bowyer was calling back to his crew saying “I don't even know how to tell you to fix it.” By lap 50 the #33 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was in the 32nd position.

First pit stops found Clint taking four tires, a trackbar adjustment, and two rubbers into the right rear. Bowyer improved his track position by five, coming out of the pits in 27th position. By lap 200 Bowyer had fought his way back up to the 19th position. The car was just mediocre and no matter the adjustments made in the pits handling was not improving. Then, word came down from the pit box late that the Cheerios car would run out of fuel without a late-race stop. With two laps to go, Bowyer headed to the pits. His day would end with him posting the 21st finishing position.

The Cheerios #33 slipped back one position in the standings due to Bowyer's mid-pack finish and is now back to 11th in the Chase. Now 123 points out of fifth, it looks like Clint Bowyer will experience his first year of making the Chase but finishing outside of the top five. It is interesting to note that without the 150-point penalty assessed after Clint's car failed post-race inspection after the first Chase race, he would be in the fifth position, 284 point back instead of being 434 points behind Chase leaders. Bowyer needs to perform strongly at the season-ender in Homestead; he will have to salvage what he can out of his 2010 season.

12. Jeff Burton - Genna Short
For a day that didn’t start off very promising for the 31 team, Jeff Burton certainly proved just what he was made of in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. He started in 40th position but was a quick mover, landing in 12th by lap 125 and had snuck into the top 10 by lap 177.

He’s always been a contender at Phoenix and on Sunday, he showed the competition that he can’t be counted out yet. While he hasn’t had a win since Charlotte in 2008, he seems to be edging closer to that elusive victory.

While his day ended in a disappointing finish, Burton still seem pleased with the run.

“It's disappointing in the fact that we finished 19th but I can't complain about where we were running and how well the No. 31 ran today,” he said after Sunday’s race.
After a fast stop, Burton found himself restarting in the fifth position on lap 228. He slipped to sixth and had to give up that spot when he was forced to pit for fuel on lap 303. He also took two tires and he fell back to eventually finish 19th.

"We really had high expectations coming into the race and the Caterpillar Chevrolet ran well, too. We, obviously, ran better than what our finish shows but, along with some other teams, we were short on fuel and a caution that we were looking for never came so we had to pit.”

While the day didn’t end as well as they had hoped, there is one final shot for the 31 team to gain that coveted victory and break a winless streak longer than Carl Edwards’. And that is just what Burton plans to do.

“We have one more chance to win a race this season and that's what we're going to set out to do."

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