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November 5, 2013
By Micah Roberts
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Jimmie Johnson's dominating performance Sunday at Texas, where he led 255 of the 334 laps, was enough evidence for the LVH Super Book to make him the overwhelming 1-to-5 favorite (bet $5 to win $1) to win the his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup title. Last week heading into Texas, Johnson was 5-to-7 and tied in points with Matt Kenseth. Now he's got a 7-point lead and heads to Phoenix this week, one of his best tracks, before closing the season out at Homestead.
Kenseth finished a solid fourth-place at Texas, but he needed to finish better than Johnson there to have a legitimate shot at beating him for the title. Kenseth had been better on just about every 1.5-mile track than Johnson this season, capturing four wins. Up until Sunday, Johnson had been winless on the 1.5-mile tracks, but with such a dominating win, Johnson not only showed his team made the needed changes to be fast on these types, but he also gained a huge psychological edge.
Barring any type of mechanical failure or being in a wreck, which is always a possibility, Johnson will be hard to pass no matter what Kenseth does. Johnson figures to lengthen his lead Sunday at Phoenix where he's averaged a 6.5 finish in his past 20 starts that include four wins.
On the other side, Kenseth has a 2002 win at Phoenix, but hasn't had a top-5 finish there since spring of 2007, a span of 12 starts. Even on Kenseth's best possible day at Phoenix, where he would be ecstatic with a fifth or sixth-place finish, he still should expect to have his deficit of 7-points lengthened past double-digits. He needed to be leading the Chase coming out of Texas in a bad way, just because of Johnson's skills at Phoenix.
The one thing Kenseth might have in his favor this week is how he's done at similar race tracks this season. I like to lump the 1-mile Phoenix layout into the same category with the 1-mile New Hampshire and ¾-mile Richmond tracks. Although all three are configured differently, the one common denominator for each is that they're all flat tracks with almost no banking. Because of the similarities, the set-ups required for all are almost the same, which means if a driver is good at one place, they'll usually be good at the other.
And Kenseth has been good on all of them, including a Sept. 22 win at New Hampshire, which was the second race of the Chase and last race run any of the three similar tracks. Kenseth has finished ninth or better in all five races held on those tracks this season, including seventh-place at Phoenix on March 3.
Johnson was runner-up to Carl Edwards in the first Phoenix race, but didn't capture a win in any of the four races held at New Hampshire or Richmond. He was fourth at New Hampshire in September.
So while Johnson's Phoenix credentials say Johnson is a huge favorite this week and also to win the Chase, there is still a small argument to be made for Kenseth at 5-to-2 Chase odds. It was just two weeks ago when Johnson was going to Martinsville, place on paper that said he should roll and gain a huge edge over Kenseth, but it was Kenseth who came up with a career performance and finished better than Johnson.
Edwards is a driver that should be considered strongly to win this week just because his only two wins of the season came on the similar tracks. In addition to his Phoenix win at the beginning on the season, Edwards also won at Richmond on Sept. 7, the final race before the Chase started. In 18 career Phoenix starts, Edwards has an 11.8 average finish -- only four drivers are better -- that include two wins.
Other drivers that have fared well on these type of tracks this season include Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, and believe it or not, Jeff Burton. Burton has finished in the top-10 in four of the five races this season with a best of third-place at New Hampshire in July. He's a two-time winner at Phoenix, with the last coming in 2001, but has maintained a solid 12.6 average finish in 20 races since.
Top-5 Phoenix Finish Prediction:
1) #99 Carl Edwards (12/1)
2) #29 Kevin Harvick (12/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
5) #20 Matt Kenseth (7/1)
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