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Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Phoenix International Raceway
If Jimmie Johnson wins his sixth NASCAR Spring Cup championship, Phoenix will have been its defining moment. It’s not over until the fat lady sings, of course, but the next six days sure feel like a coronation with his No. 48 needing to finish just 23rd or better at Homestead. It’s a well-deserved top story for a driver that has dominated Sprint Cup racing for the past decade.
But for me, Sunday will also be the defining moment for one of NASCAR’s most unexpected long-term marriages. On a fateful day in Feb. 2001, an up-and-coming development driver, Kevin Harvick, and owner Richard Childress were brought together far quicker than expected, Dale Earnhardt’s untimely death left a grieving owner with a gaping hole in his heart. Like a rebound relationship, a replacement felt good in the face of tragedy (see: Atlanta victory one month later) only to start fizzling as the honeymoon wore off. The next season, their second year together, saw Harvick suspended for a Cup race over rough driving, fighting with teammates internally and posting a 21st-place finish in the season standings – the worst performance for a Childress team in the two previous decades.
Back then, rumors began that Harvick would be replaced behind the wheel, the generation gap and headstrong personalities being too much to overcome. It seems for the last 11 years you’d see divorce papers getting threatened by one member of this duo, oh, about once every six months. But a funny thing happened on the way to the lawyer’s office: they kept stopping to beat the crap out of the competition.
Harvick-Childress, who earned their fourth victory of the season at Phoenix (along with victories in the Sprint Unlimited and a Daytona Duel) have now won 23 times together, including three of the sport’s “crown jewel” races: the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis and Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 (twice). Only a handful have won more. Yes, the title Childress so desperately wants to reclaim, proving his success extends beyond Earnhardt’s legacy, has never quite come to fruition. But they’ve been in it most every year, with Harvick finishing third twice and holding at least a mathematical shot this year heading to Homestead.
The fact they’ve got that far is a miracle, considering the divorce finally did come to pass with papers filed in Nov. 2012. For the past year, ironclad contracts forced the pairing together through a “lame duck” period where both sides are moving out and moving on. Childress is publicly focused on making his grandsons the next Sprint Cup success story; Harvick is moving to Stewart-Haas Racing, whose partnership with Hendrick finds it higher in the Chevy pecking order. An on-track incident between Harvick and one of those grandsons, Ty Dillon, led to a war of words at Martinsville just weeks ago in which Childress came this close to canning Harvick — championship chance be damned.
But, like the last dozen-plus years, the key to that statement is that it never actually happened. So here we are, with one race left and Harvick could easily wind up second, the highest points finish for any driver leaving a team since Darrell Waltrip did so with Junior Johnson in 1986. And with all the bitter history these guys have, you’d think it difficult to do a Victory Lane interview together. Instead, we found Harvick fighting back tears on Sunday.
“You want to make your race team better,” the driver said of their feisty relationship. “But in the end, you want to be a better person. He’s taught me a lot about being a dad.”
“You look at life,” added Childress. “I'm sure y'all have heard that old song, don't blink, 100 years goes by fast, and this is just another chapter in life that we're all living. You've got to be tough to hang in there and make it, and we've done a lot together.”
It’s like the old cartoon where the little kid is plucking the petals off the rose. “You love me. You love me not.” Six days is still a long time to get back to “You love me not.” Still, this partnership will look back on what it has accomplished years from now and smile on how Childress and Harvick kept up the level of success for so long. Earnhardt’s former team could have easily folded in the face of it all. Instead, they forged on.
“The Intimidator” would sure be proud.
“Through the Gears” we go, post-Phoenix …
FIRST GEAR: Jimmie Johnson takes charge of the championship
Sunday was filled with scary moments for Johnson and company. The first lap, after taking the pole, Joey Logano knocked the No. 48 sideways. Midway through, Carl Edwards did the same — with such force both drivers would have crashed nine times out of 10. Only car control from one of the sport’s elite kept all four fenders on with his mind in the game and an eye on the championship prize – as opposed to revenge.
The workman-like performance that followed — a third-place finish — defines the way Johnson and Chad Knaus approach this Chase. When tough circumstances materialize, like this race in which a pole-winning run went awry, the focus never wavers. If a win is out of the question, a top-5 performance is treated like one; every ounce of effort put towards moving up. There was a bit of history to overcome here. Last season, Johnson came into the fall Phoenix event with a seven-point lead only to smack the wall hard mid-race. You lose a championship, getting two years removed from winning one, and the whispers grow louder. It’s the cruel nature of sports; time makes you only as good as your last play.
But Johnson didn’t listen to any of that, nor waver when rival Matt Kenseth surprised by out-pointing him at Martinsville. Instead, the No. 48 team keeps throwing punches and its average finish of 4.7 threatens to set a new Chase record.
“We're heading into Homestead in the position we want to be in,” the point-leader admitted. “I'll have to go down there and run 400 miles. It's far from over.”
Unfortunately for its rivals, the fact this team knows how to treat the season finale means it already is. Barring some sort of unforeseen mechanical failure or the worst possible “Lady Luck moment” imaginable, Johnson will be your 2013 Sprint Cup champion.
SECOND GEAR: Playing defense finally caught up to Kenseth The past month, I’ve talked in writing, on the radio and on television about Matt Kenseth’s “defensive” drive to success. Despite leading the standings for much of the Chase, it’s been more the No. 20 team minimizing the damage instead of seizing control of the title race. Too many races follow a familiar pattern; Kenseth is junk at the start, complaining only for Jason Ratcliff to work his magic and make the right adjustments to the car down the stretch. That’s in direct opposition to the No. 48, which seems to start with the better setups and be the rabbit Kenseth has to catch.
To Kenseth’s credit, as well as Ratcliff’s, their chemistry has allowed them to build towards success every week. But you can only play defense for so long before the other team scores. Sunday, Johnson was so far ahead, with Kenseth struggling to even crack the top 10, it just seemed they could never flip the momentum switch. Phoenix is a track-position race, they qualified poorly (14th) and never could quite work through traffic. Then, there was a disastrous mid-race pit stop (an agonizing 25 seconds) in which this Joe Gibbs Racing outfit looked like the Bad News Bears. Pull the right strategy — around the time Johnson was Edwards’ personal pinball — and the No. 20 could have put pressure on the No. 48. Instead, the only pressure was what cracked every member of that pit crew. You felt after that moment Kenseth was toast on a day that proved so rough, his post-race comments seemed more like a concession speech:
“I couldn't be happier and more proud of my team and man — this has been the best year of my racing career, really. It's been an awesome season. You're going to have days like this and of course we wanted to finish (it) off here the last couple weeks.”
It’s a tough title for this team to lose; at 41 year of age and the honeymoon period over at JGR, you wonder if Kenseth will ever get the same opportunity. Seven race wins is a career-defining year for a driver known more for his consistency. But the bottom line is during the biggest moment, what the No. 20 team brought to the table just wasn’t enough.
THIRD GEAR: Fuel or not, Carl Edwards will be a factor come 2014Edwards, who ran out of gas to hand Harvick the lead, appeared ready to earn a Phoenix sweep Sunday. That would have given his No. 99 team three wins on the season, putting their stats more level with top Chasers Harvick, Johnson, Kenseth and Kyle Busch. It’s been a quiet comeback year for a driver still recovering from that 2011 championship near-miss.
“It was a fun race,” he said after limping home 21st. “I had a really good time. It’s gonna take me a little while to get over this one. We did everything right, we just didn’t calculate the fuel correctly.”
That mistake, combined with two mechanical failures this postseason, leaves Edwards dead last this Chase. On paper, it’s a big disappointment after coming in with the momentum of winning the regular season finale at Richmond. But without the Chase, keep in mind Edwards sits sixth in points. That’s far more reflective of a year in which he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig built strong chemistry.
The Fords appear to have jumped back in step with the Chevys and Toyotas heading into 2014. With Edwards still the Blue Oval’s high-money guy, there’s a lot of positive signs here to show he’s back on the upward swing for next season.
FOURTH GEAR: Patrick’s poor performances continue I’ve gone back and forth on Danica Patrick this season. Every time you want to write her off, she comes through with an unexpected top 20 at a track like Martinsville where the rookie shows some unexpected growth. But Sunday was not one of those days. Involved in a wreck not of her making, it was a way to take the No. 10 car out of its misery. At one point, Patrick was running 38th, fighting with the cars of Joe Nemechek and Reed Sorenson, who have five percent of her funding and used-up horsepower under the hood.
Compare that to last season, when Patrick ran top 20 at PIR before blowing an engine on the last lap and it’s a sign to me she’s regressing a bit. Her open-wheel and stock car experience is immense in Phoenix at this point, making Sunday’s run unacceptable. Stewart-Haas Racing would do well to retain Mark Martin next season as a mentor and driving coach because it can’t have these types of performances by next November.
Three straight weeks, three mechanical failures for surprise Talladega winner David Ragan, a distant 35th at Phoenix. Not the way his small-time Front Row Motorsports wanted to build towards 2014. … Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits fifth in points heading to the season finale and could run as high as second. Had he won Chicagoland instead of blowing an engine there he’d be the closest driver to Johnson heading to Homestead. … Goodyear tires remained the primary focus at Phoenix, with almost everyone agreeing a softer compound is needed. No loss of grip combined with new asphalt left everyone frustrated over an inability to pass. … BK Racing has had a “whopper” of a bad season thus far. David Reutimann’s hard crash, combined with Travis Kvapil’s blown engine, leave it with nine DNFs apiece for the two teams, with zero top 10s.