Editor’s Note: Due to illness, Becca Gladden’s 10 Points To Ponder will not be seen today. However, despite a Sunday sickness she’d like to forget, Becca was able to file a live report from Phoenix before leaving the speedway; best wishes to her on a swift and speedy recovery, and look for Points To Ponder to reappear in this same space next week.
Sunday’s sold-out Checker Auto Parts 500 in Phoenix had all the makings of high drama.
Instead, it became a NASCAR rerun.
For the fourth straight week, Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s team crushed the competition, turning whatever problems came their way into opportunities to win another race and, it now appears, another championship.
Ironically, Johnson is the first driver to put together a four-race win streak since Jeff Gordon – the teammate he’s currently beating out for the title – back in 1998.
That year, Gordon earned his second consecutive championship (his third overall), claiming the Cup in 1997 and again in ’98.
Now, almost 10 years later, Gordon’s apprentice-turned-adversary is poised to do the same.
Heading into today’s race, Johnson held a significant, though not insurmountable, 30-point lead over Gordon in the Chase standings. After the race, despite a top-10 finish, the gap has widened to 86.
With just one race left in the season, Johnson and Gordon are the only drivers still capable of winning the championship. The other 10 Chase contenders have been mathematically eliminated.
As you might imagine, emotions ran the gamut after the race. While Johnson was elated… Gordon was deflated.
“Unless you lead every lap and beat Jimmie Johnson and win the race, you don’t have a shot at it,” said Gordon. “Man, I’ll tell you, those guys are on an unbelievable roll. Whatever they’ve got, we’re missing. We know everything they’ve got, but man we’re just not hitting on it. And it’s unfortunate. I thought this was our year to get another one (championship), but we’re just coming up short here at the crucial time.”
Though Gordon and Johnson both started the race in the top 10, neither was among the early lap leaders. That role fell to Carl Edwards, who started the race on the pole and had the dominant car in th early going.
Edwards led the first 87 laps and had already begun lapping the field when a caution flag for debris sent the leaders down pit road. Martin Truex Jr. beat Edwards out of the pits to take the lead.
While Truex would eventually lead 72 laps and finish seventh, Edwards suffered a serious engine problem on lap 106. After heading to the garage for repairs, he tried to return to the race but was forced to call it quits on lap 193. He finished 42nd.
The only driver with a worse finish than Edwards was Dale Earnhardt Jr., much to the dismay of tens of thousands of Earnhardt fans in the sold-out Phoenix stands. Earnhardt hit the wall on lap 119 after getting loose, ending his day less than halfway through the race. It was Junior’s ninth DNF of the year and he now ranks 14th in points, one spot lower than Ryan Newman in the “best of the rest” category for non-Chasers.
Said Junior, “I just lost it. I don’t know what happened. We were actually gaining on the handling thing, and the last set of changes were good. The car was fast and we were gaining on the leaders. I don’t know. It just spun around.”
Meanwhile, back at the front of the field, Matt Kenseth overtook Truex on lap 140 and held the lead until lap 188 when he pitted, turning the lead over to Johnson, who had been running second.
Kenseth was the overall lap leader (93) and looked like he might have the car to beat throughout the mid portion of the race. Johnson, Truex, Newman, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart were also spotted frequently among the top five. Gordon, meanwhile, hovered between fifth and 10th.
Truex was in the lead on a lap 274 restart, with Kenseth in third and Johnson in fifth. A crucial moment came at lap 283 when Cup newcomer Aric Almirola in a lapped car held up the faster Kenseth, allowing the No. 48 to get by the No. 17. Johnson then passed Truex for the lead on lap 289 and never relinquished the position, taking the checkers on lap 312 for his 10th win of the season. Rounding out the top five were Biffle, Kenseth, Stewart and Newman.
Sunday’s race also marked the first-third time that three (or more) prior Indianapolis 500 winners started a Cup race. Open-wheel transfers Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr. and Jacques Villenueve finished 17th, 30th and 41st, respectively. Yet another open-wheeler, Patrick Carpentier, was 33rd.
Despite the fact that Johnson is the reigning Nextel Cup champ, has 10 wins this season, four straight in the Chase and a comfortable 86-point lead with one race to go, he’s nevertheless hedging his bets heading to Homestead. “It’s a nice comfortable position to be in, but we’ve got to go down there and run 400 miles. That’s the bottom line. We don’t run the full distance of the race – we’re in trouble.”