What a difference eight months make. The last time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was at Phoenix International Speedway was early March, and TheSportsNotebook’s preview of the race focused on the desperation of Jimmie Johnson. The driver had just been docked 25 points for illegalities in the parts he was using and was in an early points hole. The penalty was eventually repealed, Johnson recovered and as the drivers return to Phoenix for Sunday’s Advocare 500 (2 PM ET, ESPN), JJ is holding a seven-point lead for the Sprint Cup with only two races left.
Furthermore, Phoenix has been kind to Johnson. From 2007-08 he won three consecutive races here. This is a track whose structure is designed to make side-by-side driving—and therefore passing—easier and Johnson has found success in the fluid environment. Finally, JJ is hot—he won last Sunday and the Sunday prior to put himself in position to secure a championship.
Brad Keselowski is still in prime striking distance at seven points out—keep in mind that Johnson wiped out a seven-point lead two weeks ago with the first of his consecutive wins, so even if Keselowski just holds even, he’d have a legitimate chance next week.
Beyond the leaders, the real race is for the top five. We can give Clint Bowyer third place and Kasey Kahne fourth—it would take something extremely dramatic for two consecutive weeks to move either drive up or down. But the battle for the final berth in the Top 5 is tight. Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon are tied for fifth, Denny Hamlin is only a point back, while Tony Stewart, Martin Truex and Greg Biffle have reasonable shots. Hamlin won here at Phoenix back in March, while Gordon won two of the ten races run here from 2007-11.
It’s been a long road for Johnson these last eight months, but the end is in sight. If he puts any more distance between himself and Keselowski, we’ll have an anticlimactic finale next Sunday.