|While JJ and Kez battle for Chase, maybe Gordon steals the win? (Getty)|
We’ve seen seven consecutive different Phoenix race winners heading into this weeks race and we’ve seen Jimmie Johnson win at Phoenix during the Chase in three of his five Championship seasons, but we’ve also seen the driver sitting No. 2 in points heading into Phoenix end up winning the Chase the past two seasons.
The driver sitting No. 2 right now is Brad Keselowski, 7-points behind Johnson, and he’ll need a much better performance than he’s shown over his career at Phoenix to have a chance at matching what Johnson and Tony Stewart did the past two seasons as the driver sitting No. 2. Keselowski had a career best fifth-place finish in the April race, but his career average is a very mediocre 22.2 in six starts.
This is why the LVH Super Bowl has Johnson a -275 favorite to win the Championship over Keselowski (+225) heading into this weeks race.
But there is reason to believe Keselowski will fare well, despite not doing so well in the past. He never fared well at Texas (25th average finish), but finished runner-up last week. His team is going all in for the title and the new chassis’ built specifically for the Chase have been terrific. He’s also got that mentality, the missing intangible that Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin -- the leaders going into Phoenix the past two seasons -- didn’t seem to have when it counted.
Keselowski just doesn’t seem to get rattled and he’s willing to take chances. Just look at the past two weeks at Martinsville and Texas when he gambled with two-tire pit stops late in the race to gain favorable position on the restart. He didn’t win, but he did get his best career finishes because of the perceived risky moves.
He’s a gambler, and willing to do all it takes to gain an edge because he knows a five-time Champion that has gained maximum points in the last two races is going to be hard to catch. If Johnson somehow slips along the way, those gambles are going to pay off big time.
Next week at Homestead is when we’ll see Johnson have to really work for it because it’s a track he’s never really had to work at. He’s never won there before, mostly, because all he had to do was play it safe to win one of his five titles.
But this week at Phoenix is a different story. Johnson can virtually show up and almost sleep himself into a top-5 finish. His career 5.3 average -- the best in track history -- suggests this is not a track where Keselowski will make huge gains on Johnson.
However, Johnson has yet to win on the new reconfiguration of Phoenix. There have been two races run since the changes and Johnson has finished 14th and fourth. It’s almost as if we can throw all the past stats and data from all of Johnson’s previous conquests in the garbage. Or least it’s something that Keselowski can tell himself to stay pumped up and confident that he can make a move on Johnson this week.
This track still remains relatively flat, so set-up notes from New Hampshire and Richmond remain valid for this week. We’ve seen both of those tracks have races in recent weeks with Clint Bowyer winning at Richmond and Denny Hamlin winning at New Hampshire. Hamlin also won the spring Phoenix race making him at top contender to win at 6-to-1 odds.
The driver that stands out this week is Jeff Gordon at 12-to-1 odds because he’s the only driver to have top-5 finishes at both recent races at Richmond and New Hampshire, where he was in the top-3 of both. Gordon is also a two-time winner at Phoenix, the last coming in 2011 -- the final race under the old configuration.
Kasey Kahne won in the fall last year, the first race under the new configuration, and probably had the best car during the race in March, but hit the wall in the first few laps and ruined his day…and my wager. He’s only 8-to-1 this week, but chances are he’ll be fast again and a contender to win.
Top-5 Finish Prediction
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (12/1)
2) #2 Brad Keselowski (5/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (6/1)
4) #5 Kasey Kahne (8/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (4/1)