How will Jimmie respond?
This is the question on the minds of everyone in the Sprint Cup garage as the circuit heads to Phoenix for the penultimate race of the 2010 season on Sunday. In each of his four straight championship runs, Johnson has held the lead at this point in the schedule. Not so this year.
After finishing ninth at Texas last Sunday behind winner Denny Hamlin, Johnson trails Hamlin by 33 points. History is clearly on Hamlin's side. In the Chase era that began in 2004, the driver who has sat atop the standings at this point in the season has won every title.
So how will Jimmie respond? "Well, the last four years we have been in a different position," Johnson said. "I have lost plenty of championships in the past [in other series], and this is racing and it doesn't come easy. You are not going to get what you want every single year and every single weekend. I can promise you this: I am trying as hard as I can, I know my team is, and we are doing everything we can. Thirty-three points back is not where we want to be, but we are going to work to get back on top."
To that end, Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, has swapped the No. 48's pit crew with Jeff Gordon's for the final two races. Johnson's crew has struggled on pit road since the summer, and after seeing his driver routinely lose as many as 10 spots to the likes of Hamlin on pit road at Texas, Knaus benched his crew late in the race and started to use Gordon's guys, who were available because Gordon had crashed. This week Knaus made the switch permanent for the rest of the season.
Does this reek of desperation? Yes, but it's the right decision. Pretty much every move Knaus has made over the last four years has turned to gold, and if the pit crew that shares the race shop with Johnson's team is actually faster than Johnson's crew, why not make the switch? Egos have definitely been bruised, but Knaus will have the entire offseason to mend any damaged relationships.
"We'll be aggressive," Knaus says. "We'll go after it and attack."
Yes, expect Johnson to be as assertive as he's ever been on Sunday. He's one of five drivers to keep an eye on when the green flag waves.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Statistically, Phoenix is Johnson's best track on the circuit. He's won four of the last six starts at PIR and he has a career average finish of 4.9. Johnson has a history of coming on when it matters most, which is what I think he'll do on Sunday. He's my pick to take the checkers.
2. Denny Hamlin
Since the offseason, Hamlin has maintained that he would make his move on Johnson in the point standings at Texas. Well, mission accomplished. He won his series-best eighth race of the year last Sunday and, as of right now, the championship is his to lose.
What's Hamlin's goal at PIR? It should be to merely finish in the top-5 and take that momentum into Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he is the defending race winner. If Hamlin can be tied with Johnson after Sunday, I think he'd be happy, because Hamlin knows that he's better at Homestead than Johnson is.
In 10 career starts at PIR, Hamlin has five top-5 finishes, including last year when he came in third.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick still has an outside chance to win the Cup, but his odds are growing longer. He trails Hamlin by 59 points. The biggest problem for Harvick is that he has to out-run both Hamlin and Johnson over the next two races, and Harvick hasn't shown in the Chase that he's capable of doing that.
Still, he should be formidable on Sunday. Harvick has two career wins at Phoenix in 15 starts -- though, it should be noted, he hasn't cracked the top 10 in his last three finishes there.
4. Jeff Gordon
A season's worth of frustrations came to a head at Texas for Gordon. After Jeff Burton dumped him into the wall under caution -- a glaring breach of racing etiquette by Burton, who claimed (wink, wink) it was an accident -- Gordon gave Burton a hearty shove as the two walked toward an ambulance. You couldn't blame Gordon, who has had a fairly forgettable season. Yes, he qualified for the Chase, but he hasn't won in over a year and he's been a complete non-factor in the playoffs, except to donate his pit crew to his teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Can Gordon end his winless streak at PIR? Perhaps. He finished second in this race last year.
5. Kyle Busch
Busch gave us a memorable image from Texas last week when he extended the one-finger salute to a NASCAR official who had informed him that he had sped on pit road. It was a revealing scene, because it showed, once again, how Busch is as emotional as any driver in NASCAR today. Until he learns how to control those emotions, Busch won't be contending for a championship anytime soon.
But if you had to pick one driver to represent your team for just one race, you could do worse than Busch, who is widely regarded as the driver with the most raw talent in the sport right now. He'll likely be in the mix as the laps wind down at Phoenix, where he's finished in the top-10 in over 60 percent of his career starts.
But I like Johnson to win. And once the points are added up late on Sunday night, don't be surprised if Johnson and Hamlin are locked in the closest title race in the Chase era -- and perhaps in NASCAR history.