Any thoughts of Jimmie Johnson having any lingering affects from last weeks disastrous finish at Texas were quickly put to rest during Saturday’s Final Phoenix Practice in preparation for Sunday’s Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.
NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series points leader laid out the fastest lap of 132.348 mph early in the practice and appears to be primed at taking care of business and increasing his 73 point lead in the Chase for the Championship.
Johnson has a conceivable chance of clinching the title at Phoenix this week with one race still to go, which would be an unprecedented fourth Championship in a row. However, with another poor performance and good runs by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, Johnson could also find himself leaving Phoenix third in points.
The later scenario seems very unlikely based on his past history at Phoenix that has never seen him finish worse than 15th with a current streak of six straight top-5 finishes that include three wins.
Johnson’s rocket this week is the same chassis he used while finishing second at Martinsville, a track that—while half the distance of Phoenix—is still relevant because of relatively no banking.
There are a few other drivers who have brought their Martinsville chassis as well, but most teams opted to go with their Chassis’ that ran at the combination of New Hampshire, Richmond, or the April Phoenix race, which are all flat tracks and similar in distance.
The top driver on the combined trio of similar tracks this year is Mark Martin who captured victories at Phoenix earlier this year and the last race held at New Hampshire. Martin brought the chassis with him that won those two races and was very quick in final practice with the second fastest lap just behind Johnson.
Martin can be expected to go all out on Sunday like we have seldom seem the cool, collective veteran who rarely pushes anything. He’s fighting for a chance at winning his first Cup Championship and is just 73 points behind. Should he finish the season where he’s at, it would be his fifth second-place finish over his great career.
The third fastest in Happy Hour was another Hendrick driver, but wasn’t Jeff Gordon. No, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr who brought the same chassis he ran with at New Hampshire that was running in fourth before being wrecked.
The positive for Junior Nation is that they are running very well of late with some of the newer formatted Hendrick chassis’ and he‘s a two-time winner at Phoenix. However, the negative of just not having any luck has outweighed the actual quality of how good his cars have been.
Juan Pablo Montoya had the 17th fastest single lap during happy Hour, but had the best overall average times for the session which should give him his best career finish on the track which is 16th.
Martin Truex Jr won the Pole on Friday and showed on Saturday that he isn’t just fast in qualifying-trim, but that his race set-up is equally as fast. He had the fourth fastest single lap time and the third fastest average speeds. Truex Jr has three top-10 Phoenix finishes over his career.
Last weeks winner, Kurt Busch, came up with the fifth best lap during Happy Hour, laying it down early like all the other top speeds of the day. Busch used the same Chassis this week that led 123 laps in his last two Phoenix starts. Busch has one Phoenix win over his career, along with one, a-hem, suspension for a traffic altercation outside the raceway in 2005.
One of the surprises of the day was how poorly Denny Hamlin ran with having only the 25th best lap. A lot was expected oh Hamlin because of how ell he did on the last runs at like-tracks by winning at Richmond and finishing second at New Hampshire. Hamlin also won on the short flat track of Martinsville just a few weeks ago giving reason to believe he’d be there contending with Johnson and Martin for the win this week.
Of the former Phoenix winners not mentioned, Jeff Burton came in with the sixth best speed, Jeff Gordon seventh, Tony Stewart 11th, Matt Kenseth 17th, Kevin Harvick 22nd, Kyle Busch 27th.
Top Speeds - Final Practice (Happy Hour)
1) Jimmie Johnson 132.348 mph - 64 laps @ 128.333
2) Mark Martin 132.275 mph - 68 laps @ 127.546
3) Dale Earnhardt Jr 132.018 mph - 41 laps @ 128.039
4) Martin Truex Jr 131.878 mph - 52 laps @ 128.210
5) Kurt Busch 131.868 mph - 61 laps @ 127.863
Top-10 Rated Drivers - Ratings based on Happy Hour, recent past performances on the tracks of New Hampshire, Phoenix, and Richmond along with the current state of the team.
1) Mark Martin
2) Jimmie Johnson
3) Kurt Busch
4) Jeff Gordon
5) Jeff Burton
6) Dale Earnhardt Jr
7) Denny Hamlin
8) Tony Stewart
9) Kyle Busch
10) Martin Truex Jr