The West Coast swing of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup is on this weekend as we head for the one-miler in the desert. This thing is coming down to the wire between five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion, Jimmie Johnson, and seven-time 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race-winner Matt Kenseth. Just seven points separate the two heading into this weekend’s AdvoCare 500, and ironically, this was the same margin Jimmie Johnson had over 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion, Brad Keselowski heading into the 9th race of the Chase last season.
Phoenix has been an important race since the series swapped to the Chase setup, as the worst finish in a Chase race by the eventual series champion at Phoenix International Raceway is 10th, by Kurt Busch in 2004. Adding to the importance this weekend is the fact that the average Chase race finish by the eventual series champion at Phoenix International Raceway is 3.7! The catalyst in all of this is the fact that in each of previous three seasons, the eventual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion was sitting second in the points standings following the 8th Chase Race. Jimmie Johnson erased a 33 point deficit over the final two Chase races in 2010 to score his fifth and most recent NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship. Tony Stewart was three points behind Carl Edwards in 2011 and erased the deficit in the final race at Homestead-Miami to capture his second Chase Championship, and as mentioned previously, Brad Keselowski sat seven points behind Jimmie Johnson entering this race last season. So, will it be Jimmie Johnson flipping the trend over the last three seasons to exit the 8th Chase race and not look back, or will it be Matt Kenseth keeping the streak alive to take the trophy next weekend and erasing the seven-point deficit over the next two weeks?
As far as Phoenix, specifically, its 100% advantage Jimmie Johnson this week if you’re looking at the career histories at Phoenix. Johnson leads the series in six loop stats, (Average Running Position, Driver Rating, Fastest Laps Run, Average Green Flag Speed, and Quality Passes) he’s had top-five finishes in 12 of the last 14 races at Phoenix International Raceway, and far and away owns the better record than Matt Kenseth in career victories, top-fives, top-tens, average finish, and laps led. Also keep in mind, Matt Kenseth’s last top five finish at the desert one-miler was all the way back in 2007, his one and only win (three less than Jimmie Johnson) at PIR came in 2002, and his average finish is 17.2, so not only is Kenseth battling the Goliath named Jimmie Johnson this week, but he’s battling an Achilles heel of his own this weekend.
Enough about the points battle, on to my picks this week…
I may be completely out of material for my winner pick this week, outside of practice and qualifying…you guessed it, tough not to like Jimmie Johnson this week. He was fastest in practice on Friday, broke the track record in qualifying to capture the pole for Sunday’s AdvoCare 500, and carries the momentum of last week’s perfect win. Seriously, Johnson scored a perfect 150 Driver Rating in his dominating win last week at Texas Motor Speedway, the fourth ever perfect Driver Rating in Chase history.
Denny Hamlin commented on the state of the No.48 team following Friday’s qualifying session, “I think everyone in the garage kind of knew (the No.48 team) could turn it up at will”. Joey Logano also commented on how the Hedrick Motorsports team is in “kill mode”, Logano says “(Johnson) has that next notch and extra speed that nobody else can find. His intensity level picks up.”
Well boys, I’m right there with you this week and even though I didn’t find a header in the stats column entitled “kill mode”, I’m going with the overwhelming favorite, and now pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson this week. One piece of history besides Johnson’s impressive history at PIR that I do have to help my cause this week is the fact that seven of the 34 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Phoenix have been won from starting positions on the front row….not that I need any help in making my point this week.
Dark Horse Pick
Now, if you’ve been listening to my preview of the race each week with Greg on the Prime Sports Network, you may have noticed an ongoing trend since mid-June or so. Each time when we reach the time to talk about Denny Hamlin, you’ve probably heard me laugh or say “steer clear of Denny this week”. Well, this week I have a bit different take on Denny Hamlin for a few reasons.
Number one, Denny Hamlin has been coming around down the stretch here in the Chase, and is certainly a far cry away from where he was at a couple months back. Three top 5’s in the last four races mark’s Hamlin’s best stretch of runs since he ran second at Darlington, finished fourth in the Coke 600, and finished eighth in the June Pocono race. He’s climbing back to relevancy in the latter stages of this year’s Chase, and will use these remaining two races this season to springboard his team into the 2014 season.
The number two reason for picking Denny Hamlin is his career history, not only at Phoenix but as a top tier driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Since his first full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2006, Denny Hamlin has managed to find Victory Lane at least once in each of his seven full seasons in the Cup series. Out of the two remaining racetracks this season, Phoenix is certainly the better chance for Hamlin to keep his streak alive. He’s got an average finish of 5.8 in the last five races at PIR, including a win in 2012, three additional top 5’s, 116 total laps led, and an average driver rating of 104.2 over that same five-race stretch, so Hamlin has the recent stats worth a look this week.
Adding to my statement this week is the stat I mentioned above….over 20% of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at PIR have been won from starting spots on the front row, and Denny Hamlin just happens to be starting second on Sunday. Not only did Denny qualify well, but he also practiced well on Friday to earn my nod as the Dark Horse play of the week.
That’s all for this week, so until we head to South Florida for the 2013 Grand Finale….You Stay Classy NASCAR NATION!