Friday, November 8, 2013

Chasing the Championship: Previewing the Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway

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Photo by Christian Petersen 
It’s a two-man battle atop the standings as Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have about a 40-point advantage over their closest pursuer, Kevin Harvick. As the series moves west to Phoenix International Raceway, we look at the top five in the standings.

1. Jimmie Johnson
by: Stacey Owens

History often repeats itself. Just ask Jimmie Johnson. “Five-Time” repeated Cup championships every year between 2006 and 2010. But there’s one performance he’d rather not repeat — last year’s Phoenix Chase race.

In 2012 Johnson left Texas, heading into Phoenix, with a seven-point lead over eventual title winner Brad Keselowski, but a blown right front tire sent him into the wall. Quite similarly, Johnson's victory at Texas last weekend gave him a seven-point lead over Matt Kenseth, but Johnson is hoping for a better Phoenix performance this time around.

Johnson and his No. 48 crew start this weekend in the desert with a great history. Johnson leads all drivers at Phoenix International Raceway with four wins, 13 top-fives, 16 top-10s, and one pole. He also leads all Chase drivers with an average finish at PIR of 6.5. In fact, no other Chase driver boasts an average finish inside the top 10.

Johnson’s record at PIR reads like a Loop Data record book: best driver rating (116.4), best average running position (7.0), fastest laps run (538), and highest average green-flag speed (125.519 mph), to name a few. According to history, it would appear that the only driver who can beat Johnson in Phoenix is, well, Johnson.

One of his major concerns, however, is his lack of wins at the track since the repave in 2011. Johnson noted, “It’s just a whole new racetrack. We had a good run in the spring. I’m certainly hopeful that the direction we took things in the spring was right and obviously we had a good run, but that we have built on that and can have a race-winning car there now. The track was so good to us for so long that I hated to see it reconfigured and repaved, but we just have to get on top of things and get right over there.”

When quizzed about his seven-point lead over his friendly rival, Matt Kenseth, Johnson confirmed, “Well, there’s still a lot of racing left, and the two tracks that remain on the schedule are very challenging tracks. We need to go into Phoenix and race well. We finished second there in the spring, so we’re confident in our setup and the performance we should have there. But that doesn’t guarantee us anything, and we need to go out and have a good, strong, clean weekend.”

And what about that target on his back as the current points leader? Again, Johnson’s been there before. “I feel that through the years of winning championships, we learn how to manage stress much better and find a way to enjoy the pressure and enjoy the stress. We’ve lost some interesting close championship battles, which have been interesting character builders, although they hurt badly, and it’s not a fun month or two following that experience, but there’s a lesson to learn from everything, and I always try to find something to learn through those downtimes … We do have experience on our side, and we’ve been here before, and hopefully, that experience will lead us to a sixth [championship].”

Will Johnson extend his points lead in the Valley of the Sun? Watch the AdvoCare 500 on Sunday to find out. It might even be a race for the history books.

2. Matt Kenseth (-7)
by: Beth Reinke


In what has become a two-man race between himself and Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth is at a statistical disadvantage this week. His statistics at Phoenix pale in comparison to the five-time champion’s numbers. Kenseth has one win at the track compared to Johnson’s four, and an average finishing spot of 17.2 against Johnson’s 6.5. Johnson is also the top-rated driver at Phoenix, while Kenseth ranks 11th.

Nevertheless, Kenseth appears unconcerned with historical numbers, choosing to focus on their short track accomplishments. Perhaps the No. 20 team remains optimistic because their points triumph at Martinsville, where Kenseth led the most laps and finished three spots ahead of Johnson, is still fresh in their minds.

“I’m really looking forward to getting back to Phoenix, especially after our success at Loudon and Martinsville this season, and I think that hopefully it will be a good track for us,” Kenseth said. “The short flat tracks have been good to us this year and I’m hoping that they continue to be as we look ahead to this weekend.”

There’s no question Kenseth is a talented champion who gives 100 percent, from beginning to end. The only question left now is, can he and his team regain the lead by avoiding mechanical problems, executing flawlessly on pit road and outperforming Johnson on the track to the tune of seven-plus points?

“I wish I was seven points ahead but at the end of the day it’s in our hands. If you win the last two races … the math works out to where you can still win (the championship),” Kenseth said. “We’ve had the same strategy since the first race of the Chase to the last one. You go try to qualify the best you can, lead as many laps as you can and try to win the race. We’re right in it.”

3. Kevin Harvick (-40)
by: Rebecca Kivak

Kevin Harvick has a two-fold mission going into Phoenix. Not only is the Richard Childress Racing driver looking to defend his win in last year’s Chase race at the one-mile track, but he’s hoping to interrupt the two-man battle between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth for the Sprint Cup championship.

Phoenix is one of Harvick’s best tracks. The driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet claims three victories here, the second-most of all Chase drivers. Harvick boasts six top fives, 10 top 10s and an average finish of 12.9 in 21 starts. He has finished in the top five in three of his last five races here. Harvick scored a 13th-place effort in the spring.

On his success at Phoenix, Harvick said, "We really did well at Phoenix last year and also ran well there earlier this season, but we didn't play the strategy game correctly at the end and lost the track position we needed. … It's a great place for us as a team, but you have to play the game right with the strategy."

Not only does Harvick need to run well at Phoenix to make up his points deficit, but he must capitalize on any weakness shown by Johnson or Kenseth. If Harvick plays the game right this weekend, he could be one step closer to his first Sprint Cup title.

4. Kyle Busch (-52)
by: Katy Lindamood

In 2005 Kyle Busch earned his first and only victory at Phoenix International Raceway in only his second start. This weekend the Las Vegas native hopes to recreate some of that magic in an effort to move up in the standings.

With two races left in the season, Busch sits fourth in the standings, 52 points behind Johnson.

In 17 starts at PIR Busch has earned one victory, three top fives, and 10 top-10 finishes. His average finishing position of 13.9 ranks fifth among the Chase drivers (Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle have the same average finish) and his 509 laps led ranks third behind Johnson and Kurt Busch. Last fall, Busch finished third behind Harvick and Hamlin.

“You’ve got to have a good car, but you’ve got to have good brakes. You’ve got to have a good-turning car, and you’ve got to have a good car that can accelerate off of turn two and go fast down the backstretch. There’s a lot involved at Phoenix but, this being only the fourth race on the new surface, it could make it interesting,” said the driver of the No. 18, on what it takes to be successful at Phoenix.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-62)
by: Lacy Keyser

After finishing second last weekend to teammate Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes into Phoenix eager for a win. He’s finished second in three Chase races - twice to teammate Johnson. The desire to end his day in victory lane is evident in the way Earnhardt Jr. talks. You can even see it in the way he walks.

Coming into Phoenix Earnhardt Jr. has great stats: two wins, five top fives and nine top 10s. With two past wins at PIR and the way he’s been finishing lately, this may be the week he pulls off a victory. Though his chances at the Championship are slim to nothing, this could be great motivation for next year.

Regardless of who wins the Championship, Earnhardt Jr. is sure to be a contender for a race win.

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