Weíre only six races into the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and the circuit will be making itís third visit of the season west of the Mississippi when they roll into Phoenix for the first night race of the year. Then a week later, they make a stop at Texas before heading back to some traditional roots in Talladega.
With the west side visits still seem somewhat new even though theyíve been coming out here regularly for over a decade, one thing that seems to be getting old for many is Jimmie Johnson leading in points. Itís only been four straights years with a title, but if you add up the two previous years before he won that he probably should have, and tack on this years outstanding performance, the California driver is a huge sign of the new NASCAR.
Two weeks ago in Martinsville, Johnson didnít have his car ever at Martinsville, but still took it to a top-10 finish. After Kevin Harvick fell out early and Matt Kenseth got punted late, there was Mr. Johnson backing into his familiar position of number one in points.
Even on what may have been his worst car ever for a Martinsville, he still gains two positions in the standings. The law of physics and averages should always somehow equate for the lucky factor balancing out over the long haul, but Johnson seems to have used up more luck than a three-legged dog named Lucky.
Then when you compound just how good he and his team are week to week, youíre left scratching your head saying, ďMan, this guy donít need no luck.Ē
Ever since Phoenix has gone to two races a year back in 2006, Johnson has dominated like no other. Heck, even if you include his four races prior to 2006, no one has been better. Heís got an average finish of 5.1 and comes in winning four of the last five Phoenix races. Over his last seven races, heís finished no worse than fourth. His worst performance ever was 15th, which heís done twice, and has helped contribute to that awful 5.1 average.
Phoenix starts the mid-range flat track season for NASCAR which includes new Hampshire and Richmond. Although all are different in configuration, most teams that have success on one track always run well on the others prompting crew chiefs to usually bring the exact same chassis to each.
The drivers should give a good run for Johnsonís money include all three Childress drivers, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, and Tony Stewart.
Martin was stellar at all three tracks, Richmond, New Hampshire, and Phoenix at the tail end of last season that included a win and two fourth-place finishes. Martin also won this particular race last season denying Johnson of four straight Phoenix wins. The win was the second of his career at Phoenix that also has him with 11 top-5 finishes.
Jeff Burton used to be the Phoenix sun-king while he drove for Jack Roush with two wins and a host of other top-5 finishes. Burton was also equally good at the same time during his reign in Phoenix at New Hampshire.
Last season, his team debuted some new chassisí down the stretch as they were attempting to get a jump on the 2010 campaign for what was an awful 2009 season for the entire team, and it worked well. Burton finished second in the fall race and has carried that momentum into this year showing both improved handling and horsepower in nearly every race.
We all know how Denny Hamlin loves Richmond, and he treats Phoenix the same way, except calling it home. After having a finish of 34th-place in his first Cup race, heís gone a tear over his last seven starts there that include four third-place finishes. He finally had something good happen to him at Martinsville with a win and should be set-up nice to compete this week a well.
The one issue with Hamlin this week is having to race after having ACL surgery last week. Itís not known yet how it will affect his driving ability. If there is discomfort, Casey Mears will be available to take over during one of the pit stops.
Phoenix was a track that Jeff Gordon could never win at through his great career, even when he was the original Jimmie Johnson-type from the 1990ís. He finally took the checkers in 2007 after series of quality runs. Since then, Gordon hasnít been so good there. In his last five races there, his best finish has been ninth, mixed in with a 41st and 25th-place finish, not exactly numbers expected from someone of Gordonís stature considering who his cars room with in the Hendrick garages.
Tony Stewart won at Phoenix as a rookie in 1999, one of three late season wins Stewart had that year, but has gone winless there ever since. He does have 3 second-place finishes over his career since, with the last coming in this race last season. His quality finish in this race last season gave validation to the racing world that his new team was going to be able to contend with the rest of NASCARís best on a regular occurrence. Look for another quality finish this week.
The Busch Brothers are definite wild cards this week. You know Kurt is going to run well after having three straight terrific runs there with finishes no worse than sixth, but Kyle is the tough one to gauge. Sooner or later Kyle is going to win a race, but he hasnít had the look of a winner in any practice session prior to each race. Heís almost looked like the weak link among the Joe Gibbs cars as Hamlin and Joey Logano have each tasted some kind of success this year.
Based on Kyleís history, Phoenix is a place he should run well at just because of how well heís run at New Hampshire and Richmond over his career, yet he hasn't won there since his rookie year of 2005.
In Las Vegas, the SuperBook at the Las Vegas Hilton has been daring folks to bet on Kyle Busch all season after practices with his odds reaching above 25 to 1, odds we never thought we would have seen for Kyle on any track just a mere few months ago. But thatís how far he has slipped and itís hard to say when heíll rebound, but as the odds get higher, heís going to force some bets out of people and they may just get lucky as Kyle can steal any race.
Johnsonís going to be tough to topple again this week and wouldnít recommend betting against him in driver match-ups either no matter how high the plus-money is because heíll probably finish in the top-3. I think the best value may be going with Childress cars this week in match-ups and odds to win.
Top 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #31 Jeff Burton (12/1)
2) #5 Mark Martin (10/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (8/1)
5) #29 Kevin Harvick (12/1)