NASCAR ventured to the desert for the second-to-last race of the 2013 season.
The 35th race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season took teams to Phoenix International Raceway Sunday afternoon with championship implications on the line in the season's penultimate event.
Jimmie Johnson led Matt Kenseth by a slim seven points after the pair had dueled for much of the Chase for the Sprint Cup's first eight races. What would happen in the ninth event—the very one that changed the entire championship complexion negatively for Johnson just one year ago? And more, what kind of a show would Phoenix put on after a listless race at the track back in the spring?
Find out who left Phoenix with the championship edge and who went home wondering what could have been.
Kevin Harvick celebrated his fourth win of 2013 at Phoenix.
It was a right-place, right-time kind of thing for Kevin Harvick on Sunday at Phoenix. But it wasn't simply good luck.
Harvick won Sunday when he passed an out-of-fuel Carl Edwards at the white flag. Harvick, though, led a race-high 70 laps and put enough pressure on Edwards in the closing laps that Edwards had little chance to conserve fuel.
In doing so, Harvick also brushed aside opinions that his incendiary (and quickly retracted) comments at Martinsville Speedway about Richard Childress Racing's future would derail his final stretch of races with the only team he's ever known in Sprint Cup competition. A championship is likely out of reach, sure, but Harvick hasn't packed it in.
Matt Kenseth couldn't overcome an ill-handling race car at Phoenix.
Sometimes, a car's setup can be so far from good that nothing in the typical crew chief's toolbox can make it better. Unfortunately for Matt Kenseth, that happened amidst a championship battle Sunday at Phoenix.
Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff just could never find a setup that gave Kenseth's Toyota enough on-track speed to compete. There were more problems, too, like on pit road when miscommunication downed one stop that could have potentially earned the No. 20 some much-needed track position or when Kenseth failed to capitalize on a chance to join an alternate pit stop strategy during a mid-race caution flag.
Neither would likely have changed much, but they certainly didn't help. Now Kenseth, after a 23rd-place finish, is a distant 28 points behind Jimmie Johnson.
It wasn't a race that's going to make a top-10 list of all time anytime soon, but Sunday's second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event of the season at Phoenix International Raceway played a lot better than the first visit back in February.
Sunday's race had some fairly tight racing, some decent battles for the lead and enough close-quarters action to produce a few torn fenders. It was a marked change from a race back in March—the first-ever for NASCAR's new Gen-6 chassis on a non-superspeedway—that featured just two green-flag passes for the lead.
Goodyear brought a new left-side tire construction that likely helped the cause.
Denny Hamlin was smiles—before Sunday's race.
Denny Hamlin joined in on the struggles of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth in Sunday's Advocare 500, finishing a disappointing 28th.
The result was a surprise for Hamlin on two fronts. First, he was plenty strong in the March race at Phoenix and finished third in that event after a stirring late battle with Jimmie Johnson. Second, Hamlin was started on the front row for Sunday's race and leaped out to lead the first 18 laps.
But Hamlin's fall after losing the lead was swift. He wound up a lap down and with average running position of 21st—or in the same zone as David Gilliland and Casey Mears.
Jimmie Johnson was close to ruining his chances for a sixth title more than once Sunday.
He finished third Sunday at Phoenix, leading just one lap along the way. Still, Sunday may have been Jimmie Johnson's most impressive Chase for the Sprint Cup performance of the season.
Johnson could have and should have crashed no less than three times during Sunday's race. Instead, he came out smelling like a rose with a 28-point lead with one race to go.
The first of the two near-misses came on Lap 1 when Johnson first slid high in the first corner. In the same lap, he was tapped by Joey Logano in Turn 3, slid sideways but gathered before hitting the wall. The third instance came during hard racing with Carl Edwards when the pair made contact and slid high in Turn 1.
Many drivers would have lost control and crashed in those instances. Johnson didn't. Now, he's got a hefty cushion to fall on during the final 400 miles of the season.
Carl Edwards ran out of fuel with just over a lap to go in Sunday's race.
All things equal, Carl Edwards may have gotten a balanced shake at the end of Sunday's race. He ran out of fuel leading as the flagman prepared to wave the white flag and wound up 21st. It ruined Edwards chance to score a season sweep of Phoenix's races after he won the March race on the back of a fast late pit stop and horrible on-track passing conditions.
Still, Edwards was shocked after the race that he actually ran low on fuel. He knew it was going to be close, but figured a late yellow and a few laps of on-track conservation would lasted a little over one more mile.
Alas, it didn't, and Edwards left Phoenix with a strong dose of heartbreak.
Juan Pablo Montoya finished sixth at Phoenix.
Juan Pablo Montoya finished sixth in Sunday's race at Phoenix. The top-10 marked his eighth of the season and best run since a third-place run at Bristol Motor Speedway in August.
No, it wasn't an incredibly amazing feat for the Colombian driver in his seventh full season of Cup Series competition. And no, it's not going to change that Montoya is leaving the series when the 2013 tour wraps.
But it was a good finish for a driver that NASCAR will miss when he's gone from the sport come Daytona next year, and a finish a lot more like many expected would be the norm for Montoya at this point in a stock car career. Montoya, 21st in the series standings, will likely make his final start in NASCAR next week—at the same place where it all began in 2006.
Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have a sixth title in their sights.
Matt Kenseth's struggles were very real throughout the day, and NASCAR fans are worse off for it.
Heading into the finale of the 2013 season next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it's safe to think Jimmie Johnson will emerge with a new nickname: "Six-Time." After Phoenix, Johnson now commands a 28-point lead over Kenseth in second and 34 points over Kevin Harvick in third.
There will be no dazzling displays of side-by-side racing that determine the next champion like the sport had in 2011. Instead, the only potential for drama will come if Johnson smacks the wall or loses an engine. All he has to do is finish 23rd at Homestead-Miami, and the title again belongs to that familiar No. 48.
Earnhardt scrambled from early-race trouble to a top-five finish.
The breaks never fell well for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2013. He blew engines while leading and suffered mechanical failure when it looked like he could find a way to the front. It happened once again Sunday at Phoenix when a loose wheel after a two-tire pit stop early in the race trapped the No. 88 a lap down.
Earnhardt rallied, however, and finished fourth—right behind teammate Jimmie Johnson for the second straight week.
Earnhardt has now finished 15th or better in eight straight races and eighth or better in seven of the eight. The ninth? Well, that was a Chase opener in Chicago when the No. 88 detonated an engine. Oh, what could have been.