AVONDALE, Ariz. – After the fireworks in Texas last weekend, Jimmie Johnson seems on the right track as he tries to pass Denny Hamlin for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title.
NASCAR’s playoff series moves Sunday to Phoenix International Raceway, where Johnson holds the track record for most Cup wins, four, on the quirky 1-mile oval.
Hamlin, meanwhile, has never won at Phoenix as he tries to protect or widen his 33-point lead over Johnson in NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup title playoff. Only two races remain in the 10-race Chase, at Phoenix and then a week later at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.
Kevin Harvick, a Bakersfield, Calif., native and two-time winner at Phoenix, is in third place, 59 points behind Hamlin, and the only other driver among the 12 Chase drivers with a realistic shot at the championship.
Qualifying to set the race’s 43-car field is today.
Hamlin, a Virginian who drives the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, assumed the points lead last Sunday when he edged Matt Kenseth on a late restart to win at Texas Motor Speedway. It was Hamlin’s series-high eighth victory of the season.
Johnson finished ninth at Texas after a series of early pit-stop problems with his No. 48 Chevrolet. The miscues prompted his Hendrick Motorsports team to take the unusual step of swapping Johnson’s pit crew – in the middle of the race – with the crew of teammate Jeff Gordon.
Gordon’s crew was available because his No. 24 Chevy had just been knocked out in a crash with Jeff Burton’s car, prompting a furious Gordon to get into a shoving match with Burton on the back straightaway.
The next day Hendrick said it would keep the crew change in place for the last two races as Johnson tries to win an unprecedented fifth consecutive Cup championship. But for the first time since 2005, Johnson is not on top of the standings with two races left.
Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, said earlier this week that the pit-crew swap was not an act of desperation. “You have to put the best components together to try to win a championship,” Knaus said. “This is a performance-based industry.”
Despite not having won at Phoenix, Hamlin has five top-five finishes at the track, which features a dog-leg on the back straightaway.
As he tries to defend his lead in the Chase, Hamlin is taking a page from Johnson’s book. Throughout his four consecutive title runs, Johnson repeatedly said he drove with the attitude that he was behind in the standings, not ahead.
“At this point we are going to keep racing as hard as if we were down” in points, Hamlin said. “That’s been our plan all along and having a lead coming to Phoenix doesn’t change that at all.”
NASCAR’s second-level Nationwide Series also has a race at Phoenix, on Saturday.
Danica Patrick is again scheduled to drive as the IndyCar series star continues trying her hand at stock-car racing.