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 The penalty was eventually repealed, Johnson recovered and as the drivers return to Phoenix for Sunday’s Advocare 500 (2 PM ET, ESPN), JJ is holding a seven-point lead for the Sprint Cup with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.
The eyes of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are very squarely on Jimmie Johnson as we get set for Sunday’s race in Phoenix (3 PM ET, Fox). Johnson and his team were caught using some illegal parts for their car at Daytona. In talking with TheSportsNotebook’s resident NASCAR expert, my brother Bill, as we drove to the movies yesterday, he confirmed that an apt analogy for non-NASCAR fans is to see it as Johnson basically getting nailed for putting his car on steroids. It gave JJ—who won five straight Sprint Cup titles from 2006-10, a 25-point penalty that’s put him in a big early season hole and got his crew chief Chad Knaus suspended for six races.
“It’s going to be very tough for Johnson to come back,” Bill told TheSportsNotebook. “He’s going to have a win a lot of races if he’s going to make the Race For The Cup.” When I asked him for a percentage chance of Johnson qualifying for what amounts to a 12-driver playoff that encompasses the final ten races of the season, he gave it only 25 percent. My only thought to that was “Wow.” When you consider the Boston Red Sox started last baseball season 2-10, they had a much better chance of making the playoffs then 1-in-4. The New York Giants stumbled at midseason but had a better chance of making the playoffs then 1-in-4. So between getting caught up in a wreck at Daytona and then nailed by the NASCAR powers-that-be, racing’s signature driver is really up the wrong creek.
In explaining the NASCAR qualifying system, Bill advised that Johnson can overcome this by getting straight-up wins, as opposed to merely strong finishes. While the NASCAR point system rewards consistent drivers who may lead x number of laps, they’ve taken steps in recent years to place greater emphasis on wins. Furthermore, two of the 12 spots in the Race For The Cup are “wild-card” spots, while volume of wins can overcome a point deficiency. Right now I’ll admit this is only slightly more clear to me than the formula for the BCS rankings in college football, but I get the general principle–Johnson needs to start winning races, and a lot of them.
Therefore, there can be no better place to be for JJ than in Phoenix. There are two races held here each season, with the penultimate race of the year in November also coming to the desert. Of the 10 races run here since 2007, Johnson has won four of them. While the last one came in 2009, a 40 percent win rate in a sport where even top drivers customarily gets odds of anywhere from 10-1 to 20-1, says something about how effective Johnson has been at the Phoenix International Speedway (PIR).
The PIR has undergone some structural changes that will impact how Sunday’s race unfolds. “It’s not a typical layout,” Bill said. “They repaired it with Progressive banking, and the higher banks will make for better side-by-side racing.” When I pressed him for what the real-life consequences of that change would be, he answered “Better side-by-side racing means it’s easier to pass.” Which therefore creates a more exciting race for the fans, I then presumed. “Exactly,” he confirmed. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Johnson is a 7-1 shot to win this race, one of four drivers who are considered the favorites. Kyle Bush, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards join JJ in the favorites spot. Bill has his eye on Busch, a talented driver who has done well in this venue. Kasey Kahne, a personal favorite of Bill’s, won here last November and goes off at 10-1. Bill again bailed out on me when it comes to making a pick, but maybe that’s just as well since readers of last week’s Daytona 500 Preview would have seen my advice to bet Kenseth at 20-1 based on nothing more than I like him. So I’m going to do Bill a favor this week and say bet Kahne at 10-1, and take out a smaller “saver” bet on the desperate Johnson that ensures you at least break even if JJ wins.
Oh, and those movie(s) we were on the way to see when Bill first began telling me about the implications of the JJ penalty? It was an afternoon doubleheader of This Means War and The Iron Lady. Anyone who says Meryl Streep didn’t deserve the Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the latter either never saw the movie or has a political bias against it (and it could be Thatcher supporters too, who I heard thought the movie “did a number” on her). And if you just want to laugh your posterior off for an hour and a half go see This Means War.