Phoenix International Raceway is the site of the penultimate round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, and with only two races left before we crown a champion, the battle for 1st place in the final standings is white hot. Brad Keslelowski and Jimmie Johnson went toe to toe for 334 laps last week in Texas, culminating in an epic late race battle that saw Johnson emerge victorious. With time running out and tensions rising to an all-time high, can one of the two title contenders strike a final blow to the other’s championship hopes? We answer that and much more in this week’s edition of Four Burning Questions.
*1. Can Brad Keselowski strike back in Phoenix?*
Seven points is all that separates the top two drivers in the Chase standings, but in the eyes of perception, that points gap is much, much larger. Johnson’s victory in Texas was huge, as he not only added more hard-to-earn points to his slim advantage over Keslelowski, he also gained a mental advantage as well. Even though 7 points is only the difference of 7 positions on the racetrack, Keselowski knows that he has to beat the historically unstoppable 48 team during the time of year in which they are at their best. Not only does Keselowski now have to beat Johnson in both races, he needs to place at least 4 spots higher than Johnson in both races or win both races. Suddenly that 7 point gap seems a lot bigger.
Simply beating Johnson is no longer an option for the No. 2 team. Anything less than a win will have to be considered a failure. If they don’t win, given how close the two teams are running, they would need the No 48 squad to encounter some bad luck in Phoenix if they want any chance of making this title fight an even battle going into Homestead. Johnson’s decisive victory over Keselowski gave the No. 48 team much more than just a points lead, and Keselowski is going to have to strike back with a win in Phoenix if he is to have any shot of ultimately claiming the title in Homestead.
*2. Can Kyle Busch finally get a Chase win?*
Excluding the current top 3 in the Chase standings, Kyle Busch has been arguably the most impressive driver thus far in the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Quite frankly, this is not something that many of us saw coming, given the manner by which he and his team self-destructed during the regular season finale in Richmond. Yet, here we are nine races into the Chase, and the No. 18 team has proven to be both fast and composed. In fact, Busch’s Chase stats read like a title contender: five top 5s, six top 10s, and an average finish of 10.3. Stats like that are championship caliber.
The one thing missing, however, is a win. The No. 18 team has been oh-so-close so many times in the past eight races, only to be snookered at the end by hard charging Chase drivers and unfortunate strategy calls. A win at either Phoenix or Homestead would perhaps be the catalyst to vault Busch and his team into a title-contending role in 2013, and it would certainly help seal up the wounds of the 2012 regular season.
Nonetheless, it appears that Kyle Busch is primed for a win, and the wildcard-esque Phoenix track may just be the place where he makes it happen. Speaking of that wildcard aspect of Phoenix….
*3. Will the still-new Phoenix track configuration wreak havoc on the field?*
Despite the fact that it’s been a full year since Phoenix International Raceway was reconfigured and resurfaced, the track still is somewhat of an unknown in the eyes of the drivers and teams. The track owners have been adamant about working in a second groove to the track, and they have employed a variety of techniques since the track opened to get make it happen. However, there is still no consensus as to whether or not that second groove will be raceable, and this makes the track a bit of a headache for teams on setup.
Now, let me make this clear, I am not suggesting that the race is a wildcard in the sense that Talladega was. Rather, the fact that the teams still have very limited notes on the track along with the fast-changing track surface characteristics gives this race a bit of a wildcard feel. Not only that, but the oddly shaped dogleg section on the backstretch is a hotspot for wrecks, and there’s no telling how that could affect things if a late race restart were to occur. Nonetheless, the teams (especially the Nos. 2 and 48 groups) are going to be breathing a little faster this week as they contend with the variety of unknowns associated with the still-new Phoenix track.
*4. Will Carl Edwards finally wake up?*
One does not need a doctoral degree to understand that Carl Edwards has had a championship hangover of biblical proportions this season. His troubles this year have been well-documented, and while he hasn’t really shown any signs of snapping out of his funk in recent weeks, history tells us that there may well be hope for a late season resurgence of the No. 99 after all.
Flashback to the penultimate race of the 2010 season in Phoenix. At this point in time, Carl Edwards was still entrenched in the process of recovering from his crushing defeat in the 2008 Chase, and Edwards was in the midst of a winless streak that was bordering on a full two years. In that race, Edwards broke through and managed to deliver the decisive victory he needed to officially bust out of his slump, and it was that race that catapulted Edwards to his 2011 title charge.
Flash forward to 2012, and Edwards finds himself in the exact same situation. He is still reeling from a title defeat, and he is nursing a winless streak that is nearly as long as the one he broke back in 2010. Could perhaps some nostalgia from his breakthrough 2010 win in Phoenix be the ingredient necessary to break Edwards’s current slump and guide him to victory lane once again? We will have to wait and see, but if Edwards is going to get back on track, this week’s race in Phoenix would be a rather poetic (and perhaps a bit creepy?) time to do so.
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