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Thirty-five down, one to go. Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth will take the Championship battle to Homestead Miami Speedway next weekend while Kevin Harvick hopes to throw a wrench in the plan and come away with the ultimate victory.
Phoenix saw the points leaders fumble, but Johnson and Harvick were able to recover and finish in the top three. Kenseth, on the other hand, struggled throughout the day and was ultimately left 28 markers behind Johnson.
Here’s how the top five Chase contenders fared at PIR.
1. Jimmie Johnson
by: Stacey Owens
It’s his championship to lose … and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Jimmie Johnson confirmed that following the Advocare 500 in Phoenix.
“We're heading into Homestead in the position we want to be in. I'll have to go down there and run 400 miles. It's far from over. You've got to finish that race. Although we have a nice cushion, we still have to go down there and take care of business.”
If Johnson was looking to make a statement in the desert, he got the weekend off to a great start. He qualified on the pole and set a new track record. Then he went on to lead the first practice and finished the remaining two practices in the top 10. And in the feel-good moment of this Veterans’ Day weekend, Johnson helped re-unite a soldier with his family during driver introductions.
Johnson entered Phoenix International Raceway with a seven-point lead over Matt Kenseth. He leaves the desert heading to the final race of the 2013 season with a 28-point edge. To clinch his sixth title, a feat only accomplished by two other drivers, Johnson must finish 23rd, even if Kenseth wins the race and leads the most laps. If Johnson leads a single lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he can hoist the Cup with a 24th place effort.
But twice during the race at PIR, Johnson was a little nervous about his chances.
“Everything went really well. There were a couple of close calls — that initial start got a little hairy … later in the race, I got tangled up with the 99 going into Turn 1, and I thought we were in the wall. So I was glad to get through those two moments, and you know, carry on. We had a fast racecar and drove smart today, the best I could. It’s just a crazy short track.”
How hard will he race when the green flag drops in Miami?
“Well, we're going to go down there and race as hard as we can. I think the safest place on the racetrack is up front, and if I look back to our Texas performance, we found a way to race smart, stay out of trouble, and still get the race won. I would love to win the race and win the championship, but we'll just have to see how things develop in the race and where we are relative to the 20. The big prize at the end of the day is what we're focused on, it's not so much that individual win, but we need to go down there and be prepared and treat Friday and Saturday like we need to win the race, so we can make the car as comfortable and as fast as possible to give us all our options on Sunday.”
Johnson started the season with a win in the Daytona 500. He’d like to return to Florida to finish the season with another win — his sixth championship.
2. Matt Kenseth (-28)
by: Beth Reinke
As Matt Kenseth boards a JGR plane to leave Phoenix, the words “Six Pack” might be bouncing around in his head. Between a cantankerous racecar, miscommunication on pit road and a car that didn’t respond to a slew of adjustments, the veteran champion had his worst race of this Chase, losing 21 more points to Jimmie Johnson.
“I think the day is pretty self-explanatory. We just really struggled,” Kenseth said. “Honestly, it was the first day like that -- that we’ve had all season long. That just -- gosh that speaks volumes about my team, we haven’t had a day like that all year where we’ve been far enough (back) where we couldn’t stay on the lead lap.”
After starting 14th, Kenseth ran the first third of the race just outside the top 10, fighting the No. 20 car, which was loose off, but so tight in the middle it would hardly turn. The crew tried numerous changes, but nothing seemed to improve the racecar’s handling.
A pit stop around the halfway point went awry due to a last-minute tire decision and a hose catching under the right front tire. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff explained the miscue that resulted in the 25.6-second stop.
“I called left sides trying to get some track position and I looked up and there wasn’t any cars coming down pit road, so I thought we might as well put four (tires) on it. But, when I called four, those guys had left side tires in their hands -- so half of them went over the wall and then they had to come back and get the right side tires,” Ratcliff said. “I let my guys down. They do a great job on pit road and I made them look bad there just because of the mix-up. Again, they rebounded nice and kept their heads and did a great job.”
After his last trip down pit road, Kenseth restarted 29th and worked on gaining spots to get into the Lucky Dog position (22nd) in case a caution came out. He made steady progress passing other lapped cars but another yellow flag never materialized and he took the checkers in 23rd.
“There’s not another car out here I’d want to be driving. It’s a special group of guys -- we've had just an amazing, incredible season and we still have one week left,” Kenseth said.
Lagging 28 points behind Johnson, there’s only one way for Kenseth to win the championship now – terrible luck for the No. 48 team at Homestead. A great performance by Kenseth coupled with a Johnson disaster, such as a DNF from a blown engine or wreck early in the race, would do it. And even if Johnson fell out of the race early, Kenseth would need to contend with Kevin Harvick, who sits third in the standings, within striking distance. Otherwise, even if Kenseth wins at Homestead and leads the most laps, Johnson needs only a 23rd-place finish to clinch the title.
Even though he was disappointed with his day at Phoenix, Kenseth remains optimistic.
“Hopefully, we can go to Homestead and go down there and contend for a win.”
3.) Kevin Harvick (-34)
by: Rebecca Kivak
Kevin Harvick left Phoenix one happy man. “The Closer” benefited from Carl Edwards’ fuel shortage to win Sunday’s Advocare 500 at Phoenix , winning back-to-back Chase races at the one-mile track. In the process, Harvick kept his title hopes alive, gaining six markers on points leader Jimmie Johnson and capitalizing on Matt Kenseth’s disastrous day to insert himself into a three-man battle for the Sprint Cup championship.
Harvick had the dominant car at Sunday’s race, leading three times for a race-high 70 laps. The No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet was fast from the get-go, as Harvick rolled off the grid ninth but entered the top five on the very first lap. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 55 and held it until the race’s second caution on Lap 101. After taking four tires, Harvick restarted seventh but raced his way into the top five by Lap 110. He worked his way back up into the lead by Lap 248.
Harvick’s day appeared to be in danger when he ran out of fuel while maintaining a 10-second lead over the field. He pitted on Lap 269 and took fuel and right-side tires. The stop would actually work out in Harvick’s favor, as he had more fuel and fresher tires than the leaders.
When the eighth caution of the day came out for debris on Lap 283, Harvick was running in the top five and stayed out, able to gamble because of his fuel and tires. When Edwards ran out of fuel while leading on the final lap, second-place Harvick’s gamble paid off. He took over the lead and notched his fourth victory of the season.
Harvick sits in third place in the standings, 34 points behind Johnson and the last driver mathematically eligible to contend for the championship going into next week’s season finale at Homestead. It’s a position Harvick found himself in just three years ago.
Driving in his last season for Richard Childress Racing, there’s no better way Harvick would rather end his tenure there than by bringing home his first Sprint Cup title.
“Well, I think as we talk and as we've gone through the year, we've been successful,” Harvick said after his Phoenix win. “We've been able to win four points races, two non-points races, and so we've been successful on the racetrack.”
But he knows Johnson and the No. 48 team have the advantage with a 28-point lead.
“We're talking about locking him (Johnson) in the Port-a-Potty, so that should sum it up,” Harvick joked.
4. Kyle Busch (-57)
by: Katy Lindamood
Domination was the name of the game for Kyle Busch…on Saturday. Behind the wheel of the No. 54, Busch was the class of the field during the Naitonwide Series race. Sunday was a different story for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. A longshot for the title, Busch was still within striking distance heading into the ninth race in NASCAR”s version of the playoffs.
The No. 18 M&M’s Camry started the Advocare 500 from the fourth position but got shuffled back to eighth when Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano made contact on Lap 1. For the next 100 laps, Busch shuffled around between the 10th and 15th positions, unable to move forward and contend for the lead.
Busch had moved up into the top 10 when the fourth caution of the day came out for Travis Kvapil’s blown engine and the subsequent spin by Dave Blaney. Busch maintained his position inside the top 15 until those on a differing pit strategy started making green-flag stops with around 70 laps to go. Busch was able to capitalize and had moved up into third position behind Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. with 63 to go. However, he took the No. 18 car in for a green-flag stop with 42 laps to go.
Running in ninth when the caution came out for debris. the team made their way to pit road with 28 to go. Busch would finish the race in seventh, solidifying his fourth-place position in the standings and losing any chance of being the 2013 Sprint Cup Series Champion.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-63)
by: Lacy Keyser
Starting 11th in Sunday’s race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had hoped to seal the deal and win the race. As soon as the green flag dropped he was on the move, cracking the top five by Lap 44.
When the first caution waved on Lap 50, the No.88 pitted, taking right side tires and fuel and keeping his top five position. But trouble was heading his way. Earnhardt Jr. reported a loose wheel and had to make a pit stop, which dropped him to 30th place, one lap down.
Earnhardt Jr. used pit strategy and battled his way and finally got the lucky dog. From there he continued his climb. Although he didn't take home a trophy, he made a huge rebound by recovering from the loose wheel and finishing fourth. This marks his fourth straight top-ten finish in the Chase.