They say everything is bigger and better in Texas, and that adage certainly proved true for Jimmie Johnson, as he continued his quest for back-to-back Nextel Cup championships. Once again, Johnson and the No. 48 team found themselves at the front of the field when it came down to money time, as he ran down Matt Kenseth in the closing laps to score his ninth win of the season and third in a row. Not even his teammate/co-owner/mentor Jeff Gordon can seem to tame the No. 48 juggernaut; with just two races remaining on the schedule, he’s fallen behind his streaky teammate. But at least the two superstars have pulled away from the crowd; barring some freakish incident, the battle for the title is all but officially down to the two cars from the Hendrick stable. Johnson, with his new Stetson cowboy hat in hand, now heads to Phoenix trying to increase his 30-point lead over Gordon.
Behind them, there are other Chase drivers fighting to finish as high as possible, all of them trying hard not to end the season quietly. So, who left Texas still kicking, and which drivers are already out to pasture? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase to find out.
Johnson: With his third straight win, Johnson was finally able to take over the points lead from teammate Gordon. By pressing Kenseth in a spirited battle up front, Johnson had some nervous moments at Texas; but in the end, he gained 15 critical points while laying it all out on the line to gain that one extra spot. Now, he’s up by 30 heading to PIR, another track that Johnson has yet to win at; but with four straight top 10s there and the incredible run this team is on, it’s probably only a matter days until he remedies that.
Gordon: For the first time in the Chase, Gordon finds himself outside the top spot in the standings. Once again, the No. 24 team had to fight and make adjustments during the race to secure a top-10 finish, coming home seventh after a second straight disappointing week. He’ll need to regroup quickly; Gordon finally earned his first win at Phoenix earlier this year, and with the hot streak Johnson is on, he’ll likely need to sweep if he wants to head to Homestead with the top spot in hand.
Kenseth: Finally, Kenseth is putting in the kind of finishes that might have given him a chance for a second title. His fifth-place finish at Martinsville kicked off a string of three straight top fives, which hit a high note this weekend at Texas when he was a handful of laps away from victory. Sitting 10th in the points, Kenseth is mathematically out of contention; but with two top fives in the last three races at Phoenix, he still might score win number two of ’07.
Clint Bowyer: Still in third place, Bowyer is the only driver with a serious snowball’s chance in Phoenix to steal the title from Johnson or Gordon. But his 19th-place finish at Texas – his first finish outside the top 10 in the last four races – didn’t do him any favors, a flat left-rear tire all but deflating an unlikely title bid. Heading into the penultimate race of the year, he is 181 points behind Johnson, and doesn’t have an impressive track record at Phoenix to make the picture look any better. Among the 12 Chasers, Bowyer’s average of 20.5 is the lowest at PIR.
Kyle Busch: Once again, the No. 5 over the wall team cost Busch a shot at victory. Could it be they aren’t giving their best to their driver leaving at the end of the season? Whatever the case, Busch’s race-high 153 laps led went for naught when he could only fight his way back to fourth at Texas. Moving forward, Busch is a former PIR winner and has three top-10 finishes in five starts; perhaps he can still overcome his team’s shortcomings to get that final win at Hendrick Motorsports. Just don’t count on it.
Jeff Burton: Like his former teammate Kenseth, Burton is finding his groove too late in the season to make it really count. After struggling with poor finishes and bad luck early in the Chase, he has scored three top 10s in the last four weeks to climb to seventh in the standings. All that means now is Burton’s the highest-ranked driver officially out of the title hunt; however, there is a chance he can steal the limelight from Johnson and Gordon this weekend at Phoenix. A two-time winner there, Burton hasn’t finished worse than 15th in the last 12 races held at the track.
Kevin Harvick: With his tire misfortunes out of the way, Harvick is finally starting to rack up some decent finishes in the final few races of the season. Sunday at Texas, the credit for Harvick’s 10th-place finish goes to his crew; they continually put in impressive stops and helped Harvick gain valuable track position. Now, with top 10s in two of the last three events, Harvick gets to try to do something he hasn’t done since Daytona… win a points-paying race. Harvick swept both PIR races last year and was 10th earlier in 2007; so, look for Harvick to be strong this weekend.
Kurt Busch: Sunday’s race at Texas was definitely an adventure for Busch. After starting sixth, Busch was up and down in the running order all day long due to varying pit strategy. An extra stop for a flat tire put him a lap down at one point, but he was able to show just how strong his car was by battling back to finish eighth for the second straight week. It’s hard to handicap Busch’s chances at Phoenix; it’s a track where he has previously won, but he has finished outside the top 15 on his last four occasions there.
Tony Stewart: Stewart was still showing a never say die attitude about his chances at the title, but with an 11th-place finish at Texas that dropped him to sixth in the standings, it’ll only be one more week before that ship has officially sailed. Other than a 30th-place finish at Atlanta, Stewart’s finishes the last five races have been respectable, but nowhere close to what he needed to stay in the game. Most importantly, he has failed to lead a lap in the last four races, just another reason he finds himself 373 points behind Johnson heading to Phoenix. Stewart’s record at PIR is mixed; he won his first time out in 1999, but has struggled at times since then. However, the No. 20 car was runner-up to Gordon here back in April and led a race-high 132 laps; so there is a shot Stewart will be able to grab win number four of the season and gain a few spots in the standings.
Carl Edwards: Perhaps Edwards stayed up too late Saturday night celebrating his Busch Series championship, but whatever the cause, he was a non-factor at Texas on Sunday. The car was off from the start, and Edwards quickly found himself being lapped by the leaders. Finally, the crew found an issue with the sway bar, but the damage was done; he finished three laps down in 26th, dropping to fifth in the standings as a result. However, this is one driver that should have no problem bouncing back; in four of the last five Phoenix races, Edwards has run in the top 10.
Martin Truex Jr.: There hasn’t been much for the No. 1 team to cheer about over the last five races, but they were finally able to secure a finish that showed how strong they have been running the last couple of weeks. Truex led 16 circuits on Sunday before ending up third, good enough to get out of the Chase cellar and into 11th in the points. Looking ahead, Truex has limited experience at Phoenix, and his best finish to date is a 12th-place run in this race last year. But with a little luck, he should be able to better that mark this weekend.
Denny Hamlin: With his third finish of 20th or worse in the last four races, Hamlin now has the distinction of being last in the Chase; that’s not exactly the position Hamlin or many fans foresaw as the playoffs began in September. But things haven’t gone well for the sophomore as of late, who was near the top of the standings for most of the regular season. Hamlin does have two chances left to get his second win of the year; should this team regroup, he has a decent shot at Phoenix. He’s run well in the CoT events this year, and he’s finished third in the last two races run at PIR. The title long ago turned into a pipe dream for Hamlin, but surely he’ll be motivated not to finish the Chase in last place.
Just one race will remain after Sunday’s race at Phoenix. Can anyone else step up to the plate and challenge Johnson for the win? Will Gordon regain the top spot, or is he just laying back to make his move at Homestead, boosting the sinking television ratings in dramatic fashion? Speaking of television, will we see more drivers than just Johnson and Gordon throughout the course of the race? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase.