So maybe I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, talking about Jimmie Johnson and his continued success as we get through the final laps of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) season, as he tamed the Wild Asphalt Circus in his win at Texas in the AAA Texas 500, leading 168 of the 334 laps run. Second-place Brad Keselowski left himself only seven points behind Johnson, as “Bad Brad” tries to repeat the scene a “few” years ago, where Dale Earnhardt lost the championship to a young driver named Jeff Gordon in his third season of Sprint Cup (then named Winston Cup) competition. Kyle Busch put up a surprising third-place finish, followed by Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart in fifth. Clint Bowyer finished sixth, with Dale Earnhardt Jr seventh, in an effort that reinforced his belief that he was “back” after his championship run-ending concussions at Michigan and Talladega a few weeks ago. Kurt Busch placed eighth in his new ride at Furniture Row Motorsports’ #78 machine, with Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle rounding out the top ten.
All of This effectively leaves Johnson and Keselowski as the only two real contenders for the 2012 NSC Championship, considering that Keso is only seven points behind; third-place Clint Bowyer, while only 36 points back, is not a likely victor despite the mathematical ability to win the Cup. Chances are getting scarce for anyone else to rob Johnson of his sixth NSC Championship, but time has not “quite” run out yet. There are only two races to go, and with Jimmie Johnson’s victory last week for the second time in a row, the opportunities for anyone else to knock the king off the hill are waning, just like the sun setting on the scene of this week’s penultimate race in the Arizona desert.
Phoenix International Raceway (PIR), in the Arizona desert just outside Phoenix in nearby Avondale, will host what could be a door-slamming chance for Jimmie Johnson, giving him the ability to roll into next week’s final race at Homestead as the leader, and perhaps even the victor, of the 2012 NSC season. But there are forty-two other drivers who have something to say about that. The drivers and teams will be in for 312 laps on this one-mile oval (500 kilometers), in the third NSC race at the newly-resurfaced track at PIR. The broadcast day starts at noon EST on SPEED with NASCAR Raceday, followed by NASCAR Countdown on ESPN at 2pm EST, and the race itself at 3pm on ESPN. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer will wave the Green Flag at approximately 3:15pm EST for Coors Light Pole Award Winner Kyle Busch (who won the pole with a 138.766mph qualifying run), following the National Anthem performed by recording artist JoJo, and a scheduled pre-race flyover of four US Air Force F-16s from the 52d Fighter Wing, Luke AFB, AZ. The only driver currently slated to start at the rear of the field is the #31 car of Jeff Burton, who had to go to a backup car after meeting up with the outside wall a couple times during practice, resulting in his move to the backup car.
Considering last week’s “circus” ended up being just that, the biggest question of the week will be whether the drivers will do an “all or nothing” run for a win, especially given so many drivers like Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr, and Kurt Busch, despite their overall NASCAR successes, have yet to make it to Victory Lane this year. Just like Brad Kesolowski trying to overtake Johnson for the Cup, these and many other drivers may go for broke, throwing caution to the wind (with or without a Caution Flag), in an effort to score a win.
And speaking of a win, some things to consider this week: there have been four drivers who have won from the pole, most recently Carl Edwards in 2010. In the 32 races here, seventeen of them were won by a driver starting in the top ten. And Matt Kenseth scored a win from the furthest back in the pack, starting 28th and winning in 2002.
Best Bets: Two relative surprises in this week’s BB’s.
Kasey Kahne (#5 Farmers Insurance Chevy) – Kasey has really gotten behind the wheel this year in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports (HMS), posting two wins, eleven top-five, and eighteen top-ten finishes. He’s got a win (this race last year), two top-five, and five top-ten finishes, averaging 20th in his sixteen races at PIR; he squeaked out a 34th-place finish here in the spring after some issues. I’m expecting him to be strong this weekend; he qualified fourth, and was second-fastest in final practice. Could be a good selection in any fantasy picks.
Kyle Busch (#18 M&Ms Toyota)- Kyle dominated this track so far this weekend for NSC accounting, taking the Pole, and running fastest in final practice. My only concern, although I’m taking him as a BB this week, is that he may have run so many good laps on his #18 machine, that he may be risking blowing a motor toward the latter half of the race Sunday. Although KyBu has a win, two top-five, and nine top ten finishes here averaging 14th, he really hasn’t had the performance this year that would be indicative of him winning here. He was sixth at PIR in the spring outing, and has eleven of his twenty-four NSC wins on intermediate tracks. I’d say pick him to win, but select cautiously.
Probables: Two previous winners at PIR for my Probables this week, despite only one winning on the new surface.
Jeff Gordon (#24 DuPont Chevy)- Jeff has finished an average of 10.8 over the 27 races he’s run here. Combined with his two wins, ten top-five, and nineteen top-ten runs, accompanied by his current win, ten top-five, and seventeen top-ten finishes this year, Gordo has a good read on this track. He finished eighth here in the Spring run, after a disappointing 32d place finish in this race last year. Jeff is far from being a contender for this year’s Cup, but he’d love to get one more win this year. He’s got a better-than-even chance Sunday at PIR. Gordon will start eleventh, and was fifth-fastest in Happy Hour Practice.
Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Ground Toyota)- Denny managed to come home with the win here in the spring, dominated the outing with a 7.315-second lead when the Checkered Flag flew. That was his only win, but he’s also posted six top-five and seven top-ten finishes here, averaging 10.9 in 14 races here. Considering his victory in the spring, he’s already figured out the dog-leg cutoff that many drivers take; while some know how to use it to move forward, there are many who get caught up in the banking change that plagues drivers moving down to the apron there. Hamlin has scored five wins, thirteen top-five, and sixteen top-tens this season. He narrowly missed last year, and had a great chance to win this season before his difficulties two weeks ago
Dark Horses: My two DH’s are probably the last drivers you’d think I’d put in this category…
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevy)- OK, so JJ’s currently the points leader. Yes, he’s won the last two races. But here’s the thing: he only placed fourth last spring, and was only fourteenth in this race last fall. He does have four wins, twelve top-five, and fifteen top-tens at PIR, averaging 5.3 in his 18 races here (best of any NSC driver). And those four wins are the most any active driver has at PIR. He’ll have to work his normal “hardest” to manage to keep Brad Keselowski from snatching the lead away from him. But I have learned never to count Jimmie and crew chief Chad Knaus out of the picture. He’ll start twenty-fourth, and was only eleventh-fastest in final practice, but anyone who follows NASCAR should realize that this is exactly the position Johnson and Knaus love to be in. Keep an eye on him.
Aric Almirola (#43 Farmland Dodge)- This Richard Petty Motorsports driver has bounced around among a few teams, and hasn’t really put up any serious finishes, but he’s been slowly proving himself as more than a competent driver. Although Aric has nothing but goose-eggs at PIR (no wins, no top-fives, and no top-tens), he’s still learning. This season he’s only posted a top five and three top-ten finishes, and was twelfth in the spring race here, but he and crew chief Todd Parrott may have found something this weekend. He’ll start fifth, and was fourth-fastest in final practice.
The “radar” drivers this week include Kurt Busch in his #78 Furniture Row Chevy, Brad Keselowski and the “Blue Deuce”, and Martin Truex Jr’s #56 NAPA Toyota. The elder Busch has won here before and was fifteenth in the spring race; he’ll start sixth and was tenth-fastest in Happy Hour. Keselowski hasn’t won here yet, but that’s a matter of time; placing fifth in the spring with three laps led, he can make things happen. Truex placed seventh here in the spring, leading 29 laps overall; he starts on the outside of the front row and sixth-fastest in final practice…Martin could be the true dark horse that comes up with the win Sunday.
Rumor Mill: A big win, and a potential mis-fire?
Johnson won, so hurricane victims won– As mentioned last week, Lowe’s Home Improvement offered to make a $250,000 donation to the American Red Cross disaster relief fund to aid the thousands of victims of Hurricane Sandy. With a little simple math, it looks like the ARC was going to receive a minimum of $790,000, if you consider their initial $250K, Team 48′s $48,000 donation, added to Johnson’s winnings of $492K. All I can say is, way to go. Even two weeks after the hurricane barreled through the northeast, there are hundreds of thousands still without power, and without (in some cases) hope. We still think about those affected, and hope they get their power back on soon. Especially considering winter is fast approaching.
Happy Harvick to Smoke in ’14 ?– It was reported this week that Kevin Harvick will move from his current Richard Childress Racing #29 ride to a yet unnamed ride for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. It’s very unusual that a driver’s intentions are announced more than a year in advance, but perhaps there is a lot more brewing at RCR than is currently reported. We’ll have to stay tuned on this one, as team owner Tony Stewart remains mum on the subject.
Final Thoughts: No chance of rain this weekend, so we should be clean and green for Sunday. We’re getting down to the wire, and this looks like it could be an interesting day. What’s left of the 2012 NSC season may have two standout contenders remaining, but mathematically there are still three who truly have a chance (and a WAY outside opportunity for a fourth if the top three have DNFs). We’ll see what happens, as the “Valley of the Sun” has its last run of the year. Catch the excitement on ESPN, your local Motor Racing Network affiliate, or on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90). And don’t forget the updates, race analysis, and an occasional rant with me on Twitter (@speedglutton).
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