Jimmie Johnson: There’s Still a lot of Racing Left

Jimmie Johnson: There’s Still a lot of Racing Left

by November 7, 2013 0 comments

PHOENIX, AZ :: There are two races to go and one thing is certain:

The battle for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship is far from over.

Jimmie Johnson’s seven-point lead over Matt Kenseth is precarious going into Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Phoenix International Raceway. Remember last year: Johnson came to Phoenix leading Brad Keselowski by seven. Johnson lost the lead — and ended up losing the championship.

“Last year we were in this situation with a points lead; we had a seven-point lead going into Phoenix and had a very bad race and [lost] a right front tire,” said Johnson, the five-time series champion. “Actually had a decent race going … but hammered the wall. Really hurt our opportunity and our chance to win a sixth championship.”

Johnson surrendered his seven-point lead at Phoenix last season to eventual champion Brad Keselowski. Worth noting: the points leader entering the penultimate race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has given up his lead over the final two races six times.

Although Johnson currently leads the Wisconsin native, Kenseth has seven wins to Johnson’s six, an advantage that could determine the champion if the two are tied in points following the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

After comparing the two drivers’ records at Phoenix, most people might give the edge to Johnson, who has four wins, 13 top fives and 16 top 10s in 20 starts. Kenseth’s stat line: one win, five top fives and nine top 10s in 22 starts at the one-mile track. While Johnson’s numbers are impressive, he hasn’t visited Victory Lane at Phoenix since the track was repaved and slightly reconfigured in 2011.

“There’s definitely less confidence in the track that we’re racing on now, and if you just look at our performance over the years, we won so many races with the old configuration and that old asphalt,” Johnson said. “If there was one guy sad to see the old configuration and asphalt go away, that was me. We just had something that worked there and fit my driving style and we were able to win a lot of races.”

Johnson finished second in the March race earlier this year, but that’s juxtaposed with the 32nd he turned in during last year’s Chase race. In his last 14 starts, he’s finished in the top five in 12 of them, including three consecutive wins from fall 2007 through fall 2008. His most recent win came in the 2009 Chase race.

Johnson tops six Loop Data categories including Driver Rating (116.4), Fastest Laps Run (538) and Average Green Flag Speed (125.519 mph). Additionally, he has led more laps (932) at Phoenix than Kenseth (212) and third-place Kevin Harvick (420) have combined.

The California driver knows full well that the season is far from over and that there are still a scheduled 712 miles left to run before the intensity and pressure lessens, so don’t expect a letdown. Johnson’s hopes for a sixth championship could rest on this weekend.

“I’m just not going to put my guard down,” he said. “We need to go into Phoenix, race well. … We finished second there in the spring, so I feel strong about our setup and the performance we should have there, but that doesn’t guarantee us anything, and we need to go out and have a good strong, clean weekend.”


The first 23 NASCAR Nationwide Series races at Phoenix International Raceway have yielded 18 winners coming from the first two rows, including six winners who started on the pole. The last two races were won by the polesitter — Kyle Busch in March 2013 and Joey Logano in November 2012.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the key to winning or at least finishing well in Saturday’s ServiceMaster 200 (4 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at Phoenix International Raceway is qualifying well.

This plays into Austin Dillon’s wheelhouse — at least this season. Through the first 31 races of 2013, he has started on the first two rows in 18 events, including a series-high seven poles. Four of those poles came in successive weeks — a series record for most consecutive poles. He’s started on the outside of the front row four times this year, while starting third five times and fourth twice. His average starting position of 4.9 is a NNS personal best. Unfortunately for Dillon, he hasn’t yet been able to convert any of these solid starts into victories.

In four series starts at the one-mile track, Dillon, who has a six-point lead in the standings over Sam Hornish Jr., has compiled one top-five and three top-10 finishes, which have all come in his last three outings. In March, he placed sixth after starting sixth. In last year’s fall race, he also placed sixth from a starting position of third. In March 2012, he posted his best finish at the track, finishing fourth. In two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts he has finishes of seventh and fifth.

Although a good qualifying spot at Phoenix is integral to a good run, how drivers and teams approach the different turns is just as important.

“It’s a handling race track where it’s very important to work on your car and make sure it’s right for the race,” Dillon said. “Phoenix International Raceway is a place where getting off of each corner is very big. Entry is important. You need to be stable but you need to be the first one to the gas.”


NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate Darrell Wallace Jr. has accomplished a lot during his first season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, highlighted by his first national series win at Martinsville two weeks ago. If he’s able to continue his current hot streak, he just might add another achievement to his resume — 2013 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year.

Wallace’s win at Martinsville — the first by an African-American driver in one of NASCAR’s three national series since Wendell Scott won almost 50 years ago at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla. — cut seven points off Blaney’s lead in the rookie standings, down to five. After finishing seventh last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Wallace arrives at Phoenix International Raceway for Friday night’s Lucas Oil 150 (8 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1) with a one-point edge over Ryan Blaney in the rookie standings.

In order to maintain his lead in the rookie battle, Wallace will have to manage a track where he’s never competed in the series. Blaney only has one start at the one-mile track, finishing a solid fifth in last year’s fall event.

“[Phoenix is] another new track for me in the No. 54 Toyota Tundra, but we still have momentum on our side and I’m confident we will have another strong run this weekend,” Wallace said. “Hopefully we can get us another top-10 finish and be the top-finishing rookie for the fifth race in a row.”

Through the first 20 races of 2013, Wallace has collected five top fives and 12 top 10s and ranks sixth in the overall championship standings, 90 points behind leader Matt Crafton. Wallace has been the top-finishing rookie in eight races, with Blaney and Jeb Burton tied with six apiece.

Crafton, who has a 46-point lead over James Buescher in the standings, is among the favorites at the track. Although he’s never won at Phoenix, he sports a healthy 100.5 driver rating and has spent more laps (1,091) in the top 15 in the last eight races than any other driver.

NASCAR Wire Service

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