NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson Plays the Favorite and the Hunter at Phoenix

Hank EptonCorrespondent INovember 10, 2010

Jimmie Johnson sets his sights on Denny Hamlin at Phoenix
Jimmie Johnson sets his sights on Denny Hamlin at PhoenixTodd Warshaw/Getty Images

Jimmie Johnson finds himself in unusual territory headed into Race 9 for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He’s looking up at Denny Hamlin.

Fortunately for the No. 48 team, the next waypoint on the trail to Homestead is Phoenix International Raceway.

Johnson heads to the Valley of the Sun trailing Hamlin by 33 points in the Sprint Cup standings, and he enjoys just a 26-point advantage over Kevin Harvick.

Phoenix, for Johnson’s sake, is a place where the Lowe’s Chevrolet has shined.

Johnson has claimed victory in each of the past three fall races at Phoenix, and four wins overall.

He’s been spectacular there, and he’ll enjoy the lightning-fast pit stops from his new over the wall group, imported from Jeff Gordon’s DuPont Chevrolet for the last two races.

In 14 starts at Phoenix, Johnson has never failed to finish on the lead lap, and he’s actually led almost one out of every five laps he’s competed there, and his average running position over the past five races is about fifth.

His 4.2 average finishing position over the last 11 races there is indicative of just how good he’s been, and he’s one of only two drivers to have an average finish of better than tenth over that stretch (Mark Martin 8.7).

He’s dominant there almost every lap, actually one in ten, which is about the clip at which he posts the fastest lap on the racetrack over the last five years (406 out of 2964).

He’s being chased by two drivers with mixed results at Phoenix.

Harvick has two wins there, sweeping both events in 2006 and posting a 15.0 average finish.

Denny Hamlin has yet to post a win at Phoenix, but has a better average finish at 11.6.

Phoenix could produce the Sprint Cup Champion, since it’s a paradox in just about every way.

The flat, one-mile oval has the speed of a bigger track, but often races like a short track, and its uneven turns create challenges for crews trying to find a balance between all four corners, making it feel like a road course for the balances it forces teams to find.

With all three just 59 points apart, Phoenix could be the swing race of the season. Hamlin went into Texas 14 points down to Johnson, and left 33 ahead.

That’s a 47-point swing in one afternoon.

There are two afternoons left in the season, and it’s still anyone’s trophy at Homestead.