Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Phoenix Preview: Look For Hamlin To Lead The Way Followed by Hendrick

by Micah Roberts

Just when we thought NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship was a runaway lacking any kind drama with Jimmie Johnson running away, Sam Hornish crashed the party by wrecking Johnson last week at Texas.

Johnson lost 111 points and is only 73 points ahead of second place Mark Martin and 112 points ahead of third place Jeff Gordon. He still has a comfortable lead with two races to go, but at least it‘s something to talk about unlike what we’ve had fir the duration of the Chase where Johnson has ran away in his quest to win four straight titles.

This week it’s off to Phoenix where Johnson has three career wins at including a sweep on 2008. Earlier in the season, Johnson finished fourth behind winner Mark Martin making it five straight wins in Phoenix by a Hendrick Motorsports driver.

“Yeah, I would say that looking at the schedule, the best track remaining for us would be PIR, “ Johnson said. “We had a really fast car in the spring and had some different issues on pit road and some bad luck with the timing of the caution that kept us back in the pack, and still ended up with a reasonable finish but we passed a lot of cars, and in our opinion felt like we had the strongest car.

“For me it's a great track but it's also a great track for Jeff. He runs very consistent there, and then Mark won in the spring. The two guys I'm trying to stay ahead of in the points have that track as a strong one, as well.

Johnson will be using his Martinsville chassis from last month in which he finished second to Denny Hamlin in. Though much shorter in length, the flat nature of Martinsville is very suitable for Phoenix. If things don’t work out, they can roll their back-up out which has four of five races it started including Richmond and Phoenix last season.

Jeff Gordon got his first career win at Phoenix in 2007, but had always run fairly well despite the win drought. He’ll be looking to press the issue this week as only two races remain.

“A lot can happen in these final two races,“ said Gordon at an attempt of being optimistic. “There are hundreds of moments that you have as a team every single weekend that maybe don’t materialize, or that don’t get seen by the public or even the media. But we see it. There are close calls all the time, and it can happen at any time. I get through every race and think, ‘whew, we survived this moment or that moment. Phoenix has certainly been on our radar because it’s a track that’s been hit or miss for us. I’m a little disappointed in how we performed earlier this year, and we certainly need to improve on that this weekend. A lot still has to happen if we are going to realistically battle for the championship in the season finale. But we need to make sure we do everything in our control to secure as many points as possible this weekend.”

True, a lot can happen, but the “Lot” happened last week at Texas. We all kind of figured that there would be a lapse by Johnson somewhere and assumed it would be at Talladega, but it happened at Texas instead. Asking for a Johnson collapse on a track like Phoenix where his worst career finish in 15th and he’s finished in the top-5 for six straight races might be a little too much.

The bottom line is that the gift came last week and drivers like Mark Martin and Gordon didn’t capitalize enough on it to make Johnson feel the pressure a little bit. This guy is about as cool as they come and these are the types of moments that have already defined him as one of the best ever.

We have the luxury at Phoenix of looking back at two other facilities to get a better grasp on who may win the race. The flat banking and length of New Hampshire and Richmond are very similar and just about every year we see multiple wins by at least one driver from a team who has figured out the layout.

So far, Mark Martin is that guy having won at Phoenix earlier in the year and New Hampshire in September. The others with one win are Kyle Busch at Richmond, Joey Logano in a rain shortened New Hampshire race, and Denny Hamlin at Richmond.

Martin, Busch and Hamlin will again be contenders to win this week based on their excellence on those tracks this year. Of the three, Martin will be charging the hardest trying to gain as many points possible to ensure he doesn’t just finish second in the points again, something he’s done four times in his career without ever winning the title.

The driver I’m going to key on this week is Hamlin. I like the way he drives on these type of tracks, especially what he‘s done lately. In his last run at New Hampshire, he finished just behind Martin in second place. The race prior to New Hampshire, he won at Richmond and just to boot, he won on the smaller flat track of Martinsville as well. He’s never won at Phoenix, but has finished third on three separate instances.

As for the point leader, Mr. Johnson, the Sports Books have him listed as the favorite to win based on past history, but I’d look for him to play it conservative this week and race for points. 73 points is the margin between running first and 15th. Johnson should finish with a top-10, but after getting a huge scare last week, don’t expect him to let it all hang out and go for the win in a race he’d be normally very capable of winning under different circumstances.

TOP 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (8/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (10/1)
3) #5 Mark Martin (8/1)
4) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)

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