Since the NASCAR Chase for the Championship format began in 2004, the driver leading in points after eight of the 10 Chase races has gone on to win the Championship. If that stat holds true again this year, we will be witnessing a new Champion crowned as Denny Hamlin took control of his own destiny by winning at Texas last week. The win by Hamlin, coupled by Jimmie Johnson finishing ninth, gave Hamlin a 33-point lead heading into this weeks race at Phoenix, the second to last race of the season.
Johnson now finds himself in a position he has seldom been in, trailing, with two races left. Kevin Harvick still sits third in points, but he lost points on the leader even though he finished ahead of the driver he initially sought out to beat in Johnson. The Las Vegas Hilton Super Book posted their adjusted odds to win the Sprint Cup title with Hamlin as the 5-to-7 favorite followed by Johnson at 11-to-10 and the Harvick at 7-to-1.
Hamlin set out to duplicate what he did last year in the final three races and has started off better with his win compared to runner-up in last years Texas race. For the last few weeks Hamlin and his crew chief Mike Ford have been playing mind games with Johnson’s team to try and take them out of their element. On Sunday at Texas, they took it to a whole new level and it worked like a charm.
Ford chose a pit stall right in front of Johnson’s with hopes that their pit crew would be paying more attention to Hamlin’s and feel the pressure like they never have before in such a tight Chase. It’s hard to ruffle Johnson’s feathers in the crunch, but if you can pick on the individual crew and take them out of their game, it could be worth up to a second edge in each pit stop which is the difference of a few positions on each restart.
The Hamlin team never could have imagined how successful their strategy would be and to what lengths Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus would do to get back their edge. When Jeff Gordon’s day ended midway through the race, Knaus used Gordon’s pit crew to finish the race for Johnson, sort of like a relief pitcher as Knaus later explained. Kanus later tried making all kinds analogies in the sports world to justify the move, but on the broad scope, stuff like that just doesn’t happen in NASCAR.
It especially doesn’t happen in a tight battle for the Championship when Johnson is the four-time defending Champion who used that exact bunch in the pits to get there. It’s not exactly the type of morale boost a team needs while in the thick of a tough battle. What happens from here on out? What’s the tension going to be like in the team garages this week?
Seldom do we ever see defending Champions wilt so bad under pressure. In this case it wasn’t Johnson, but it was the team led by their head coach, or crew chief. Not only does the move put undue pressure on one of the best pit crews in NASCAR, but it also gives the team they are Chasing a feeling of already having won. They were in a staring contest and Johnson’s team blinked.
This week at Phoenix, all three drivers going for the Chase have a great shot at winning, especially Johnson who has four career wins there, including this race last year. Johnson has finished in the top-four in his last eight straight races while Hamlin has finished in the top-six in six of his last eight races there. Hamlin has never won at Phoenix, but is one of the best in the series on flat tracks.
Harvick has struggled his last couple times at Phoenix, but did sweep the 2006 season there. His goal this week will be to go for the win with not much else helping his cause. In his last two outings on tracks that require similar set-ups, Harvick finished ninth at Richmond and fifth at New Hampshire. For Hamlin in the same races, he finished first and second.
In the five combined races held at Phoenix, Richmond and New Hampshire, Johnson has a win and two third-place finishes to his credit. If looking for an outsider to win this week, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon would be good drivers to start with. Gordon lost out in the spring Phoenix race to Ryan Newman on a restart and finished second. Busch has finished in the top-11 of all five races on the similar tracks including a win at Richmond in May.
Top 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (9/2)
2) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (6/1)
5) #33 Clint Bowyer (14/1)