The last driver to win the first two races of the Sprint Cup season was Matt Kenseth in 2009. But on Sunday, Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson will attempt to be the first driver to do it since Phoenix International Raceway reassumed the second slot on the Cup schedule in 2011.
Johnson, who starts third behind Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne, is certainly a threat to win. But a combination of factors—represented by both his own performance and the performance of other drivers—suggest that it may not happen.
For one, he has an up-and-down record at Phoenix as of late. During his five-year streak of Sprint Cup championships from 2006 to 2010, Johnson never finished worse than fifth in Phoenix's fall race. But since the track was repaved in time for the November 2011 event, Johnson has only one lead-lap finish; in his last appearance, he finished 32nd, to all but throw away his chance at a sixth title.
The biggest threat Johnson will have to deal with on Sunday will be the Toyotas of Martin and Kyle Busch. Martin turned the fastest laps in both the second and final practices of the race weekend, while Busch ranked second on the speed charts in all three sessions.
Busch also won Saturday's Nationwide Series race after leading 142 of 200 laps. Johnson, making a rare Nationwide appearance to gain track time on Goodyear's new tire compound, started seventh in a JR Motorsports Chevrolet and finished 12th, failing to lead any laps.
The truth is Johnson can beat both drivers on Sunday, but it won't be easy. Martin remains the favorite after an impressive weekend on the speed charts, but he still has never won a Sprint Cup race while competing in a limited schedule. As for Busch, who starts fourth, he may prove the greater threat: In November, Busch led 237 of 319 laps from the pole to finish third.
By all means, expect Johnson to run toward the front on Sunday. He's a lock to lead laps, and barring catastrophe, should score a top-five finish.
But if Busch, hungry after an engine failure ended his hopes at glory in Daytona last week, manages to keep himself out of trouble—or, for that matter, if Martin or any of the other Toyotas do—it may be too much for the No. 48 team to handle.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.
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