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Johnson, Kenseth take NASCAR Chase battle to Phoenix


1. Johnson hopes for no Phoenix repeat  
There’s plenty in Jimmie Johnson’s career that the five-time champion would love to repeat. Championships, Daytona 500 wins and beating other drivers in side-by-side duels all probably make the cut.

But Johnson’s race at Phoenix International Raceway a year ago this week? Well, that’s one result that is awfully forgettable.

Johnson had driven from 24th to inside the top 10, holding par with championship challenger Brad Keselowski, when he felt his right front tire go soft exiting Turn 4. The car was suddenly uncontrollable and Johnson smacked the outside wall. The damage to the car was severe — he spent many laps in the garage getting repairs — but the damage in the point standings was worse.

Johnson ceded 27 points to Keselowski that day and left for the final race with a deficit that proved insurmountable.

“I’m just not going to put my guard down,” Johnson said this week. “We need to go into Phoenix and race well.”

He finished second in the spring race.

2. Will Phoenix be Chase’s splitting point?Is this the weekend when we see the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings break for one driver or another? Or will NASCAR get its desired ‘Game 7 moment’ in next week’s season finale?

The 2013 version of the Chase has remained knotted, somewhat improbably, through its first eight races. Even when there have been problems, the teams of Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have rallied. Both conservatively emerged from the expected wildcard that is Talladega unscathed. All told, Johnson and Kenseth have combined for four wins, 11 top 5s and 13 top 10s in the 16 Chase starts between them.

The difference in the standings with two races left is a polite seven points.

More problems for Johnson like he had one year ago would certainly break things open, but so would another Kenseth Phoenix crash (fall race, 2011). But can we actually expect that?

Both drivers were top-10 finishers in the spring race, and both seem to be racing at a comfortable limit that’s been good enough to push the rest of the field further and further away as the postseason heads for a close. That cushion has led to both teams making few massive mistakes and finding ways to recover from the small ones.

Anything can happen, sure, but this Chase is leaving the impression that it won’t reveal its true identity until the end. It’s a fitting identity, really, seeing as both drivers are often masters of making their most decisive moves when the checkered flag nears — not when the engines are just getting fired.

3. Extreme advantage of track position gave Edwards spring Phoenix win  It’s no secret that Carl Edwards all but had the February race at Phoenix International Raceway won when he left pit road first during the race’s final round of pit stops on Lap 238. He, like every other driver and team, knew the advantage that the race leader had in the Gen-6 car’s second race.

“The biggest thing that helped us was our pit crew,” Edwards said this week. “We had awesome pit stops and kept coming out three or four spots ahead of where we were running and that ultimately is what won us the race.”

The advantage of track position, of course, is nothing new in NASCAR.

But at Phoenix in the spring? The edge was simply absurd. It showed in the number of passes for the lead under green flag conditions. In total, there were just two during the race with the last one coming when Brad Keselowski passed Mark Martin on Lap 127 of the 312-lap race.

Look for that knowledge to greatly affect pit road strategy on Sunday.

4. New left side tires could be weekend’s curveball
Part of Edwards’ strategy — and that of several other drivers — included numerous two-tire pit stops in the spring race for new rubber on the right side only. The left side tires simply weren’t wearing enough to warrant a replacement in the name of handling improvement.

Thanks to a new left side tire construction that Goodyear is bringing to Phoenix for Sunday’s race, that could certainly change. Hopefully, it will change the lack of passing at the front, too.

The tire supplier held a test session at the track in September with five drivers. That test led Goodyear to bring a left side compound that the brand says “is designed to give the cars more grip” and is closer in construction to tires used one the one-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

All three NASCAR national series racing this weekend — Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck — will use the same tires.

5. Jeff Gordon/Clint Bowyer, one year later  
With less than two laps left to decide the winner of the fall race at Phoenix a year ago, Kevin Harvick look destined for victory lane in the same weekend reports surfaced of his departure for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Johnson’s in-race problems and Keselowski’s newfound point lead was going to dominate the post-race chatter.

Then Jeff Gordon swerved right.

Gordon rammed into Clint Bowyer, sending both careening into the outside wall while collecting the bystanders of Joey Logano and Aric Almirola. It was an intentional crash by Gordon, supposed payback for slights that Bowyer had leveled previously on-track. It led to the season’s most-talked about story when Bowyer sprinted to the garage area seeking Gordon and a fight that broken out among crew members.

Tensions have cooled in the relationship between the two drivers — neither have had run-ins during competition in 2013 — but it’s fair to say the relationship still appears icy.

What’s that mean at Phoenix? Probably nothing. Bowyer, already suffering from the PR blowback of his team’s actions at Richmond in September, has been unwilling to rock many boats and hasn’t been much of a Chase contender. He’s had plenty of chances to deliver a payback to Gordon and hasn’t done so.

Still, the moment will be a cornerstone of this weekend’s race coverage as broadcasters recall the moment — and probably hope for another.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter:@GeoffreyMiller
Photos byAction Sports, Inc.