They are the NASCAR equivalent of Jordan and Jackson, Jeter and Torre, Brady and Belichick. Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, have ruled NASCAR for the last decade with the same kind of ruthless domination as those dynastic player-coach duos in other sports. Now Johnson and Knaus are on the cusp of doing something that's never been done Sprint Cup racing: win six titles in eight years.
With two races left in the 2013 season, Johnson and Knaus hold a seven-point lead over Matt Kenseth and his crew chief, Jason Ratcliff. Yet Johnson has been in this position before -- and lost. Last year, as the series headed to Phoenix International Raceway for the penultimate race on the schedule, Johnson had a seven-point edge over Brad Keselowski. What happened? Johnson and Knaus floundered over the final two weeks, finishing 32nd at PIR and 36th at Homestead-Miami Speedway. They lost the title to Keselowski, as much handing it to him as getting flat-out beat.
That near miss haunted Johnson this winter. "It ate at me every single day," he said before the 2013 season began. "You know you're only going to get so many opportunities in your career to win a championship, and we definitely let that one get away. I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that doesn't happen again. Ever."
This weekend, Johnson has a chance to bury Kenseth in the Arizona desert. Johnson has flourished at Phoenix, a one-mile flat track, during his title years. Consider: In 2006 (the year of his first championship), he finished second in the fall race at PIR; then in '07, '08 and '09 (title seasons two, three and four) he won this race; and in '10 (title five) he came in fifth. So in his five championship years Johnson's average finish at PIR has been an astounding 2.0.
"I feel good," he said. "But man, it's so weird because I've been in this position before where I've had these amazing sensations and feelings that a championship was going to happen, and we were able to do it for those five years in a row."
"I think we're in as good or maybe just a pinch better shape this year [than last], though I do feel the opponent is a little more formidable than what we had last year," said Knaus. "I love this time of year. This is what we live for."
When Johnson and Knaus have openly talked about feeling "good" in years past, it's usually meant the same thing: a championship was near. This week, Johnson has been running mental laps at Phoenix in his mind every night before he's gone to sleep, perfectly hitting his marks through every turn. This quest for perfection has been a hallmark of the dominance of Johnson and Knaus. The 48 team is my pick to take the checkers on Sunday -- and, in the process, take control of the Chase.
Here are four other drivers to watch at PIR, but really all eyes will be trained on Johnson and Kenseth.
1. Matt Kenseth
The 2003 Cup champion, Kenseth still controls his own destiny. If he wins at Phoenix and Homestead, he will claim the 2013 title, no matter what Johnson does in those two races.
Kenseth's goal for Phoenix is clear: Keep Johnson in his sights. Kenseth has never been as proficient at PIR as Johnson -- he hasn't won at the one-mile track since 2002 and has only one top-10 in has last five starts -- so he merely wants to stay close to the 48 car on Sunday.
If Kenseth can get within 10 points of Mr. Five Time heading into Homestead, then the pressure would be on Johnson. Why? Because Kenseth should have the mechanical edge in the season finale. After all, Kenseth's average finish in his last eight starts at Homestead is 9.9 while Johnson's average over that stretch has been 18.3.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
If Earnhardt is going to win a race this season, it will be on Sunday. Only Johnson and Kenseth have performed better during the last eight weeks -- Earnhardt has come in second three times in that span -- and the driver of the number 88 Chevy seems to be getting closer each race to reaching Victory Lane.
Earnhardt, who has two career wins in 22 starts at Phoenix, finished fifth in at PIR in the spring. That afternoon, he led 47 laps before falling off late. He and crew chief Steve Letarte have excelled with their mid-race adjustments in the Chase. If they keep that up on Sunday, Earnhardt may very well snap his current 53-race winless streak.
3. Kyle Busch
Currently fourth in the points, Busch won't win the championship this season, but this still must be considered a breakout Chase for the driver of the number 18 Camry. He has a long history of flopping in the playoffs -- in his last three Chase appearances his average finish in the final standings has been 10.0 -- but he has consistently run with the leaders this fall. In the eight playoff races, he has five top-five finishes.
Busch should be a factor on Sunday at PIR, one of his better tracks on the schedule. Last year in this event he sat on the pole, led a race-high 237 laps, and finished third.
4. Carl Edwards
This has been a forgettable Chase for Edwards, the regular season points champion. Last weekend at Texas was a microcosm of his playoffs. After winning the pole on Friday, he blew an engine on Sunday and finished 37th. This just hasn't been Edwards' autumn. But he'll be among the favorites to win at Phoenix. He took the checkered flag in the spring race at PIR -- his team's setup notes should be valuable this weekend -- and he has taken three career poles here. Pencil him in for a top-five on Sunday.
Still, this race -- and the rest of this season, for that matter -- will be a battle between two drivers: Johnson and Kenseth. It says here that Double-J will be hoisting the trophy on Sunday -- and, seven days later, an even bigger one at Homestead.