Jimmie Johnson's team historically too good to handle at Phoenix
It's only fitting that NASCAR heads to Phoenix for its penultimate race of the Sprint Cup season. It's there in the desert where championships hopes come to die.
Five times Jimmie Johnson's vanquished competitors have left Phoenix feeling demoralized, muttering about ill-handling cars, grumbling about fuel-mileage or exasperated by his dominance. Often they knew there was little they could do to prevent Johnson's coronation the following week in Homestead.
Now the question is: will Brad Keselowski feel the same way after this weekend's race?
Johnson's second consecutive Chase victory not only gave him the chance to fire six-shooters Sunday in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway, but also extend his lead on Keselowski to seven points.
Johnson's advantage is not insurmountable -- Keselowski has gained seven or more points on Johnson in nine races this season -- but if he continues to run like he has, Johnson will be celebrating a sixth title in two weeks. Then talk can begin about a quest to match the seven crowns Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won.
Keselowski is not ready to hear such debate.
"I refuse to lose this damn championship, " he radioed his team in the final laps on Sunday.
History is not on Keselowski's side. Many others have felt the same way when racing Johnson, until Phoenix changed everything:
• In 2006, Johnson entered Phoenix with a 17-point lead on Matt Kenseth under the old points system. Johnson finished second and Kenseth 13th, leaving Kenseth little hope of winning a second title. Kenseth was asked that day what it would take to beat Johnson for the crown, and he said, "Only if he blows up, and then we're running so bad right now that I don't feel like we can beat anybody."
• The following year, Phoenix again determined the champion. "It's over," Jeff Gordon said after watching Johnson win his fourth consecutive race in the title duel between teammates.
• Johnson held such a firm grip on the points lead in 2008 at Phoenix that it was fans who became frustrated. With no title drama, along with rain and accidents extending the race into primetime, ABC officials moved the end of the event to ESPN2 in favor of airing "America's Funniest Home Videos."
• In 2009 angst returned to Johnson's competitors. They were given hope at Texas when Johnson was collected in a lap 3 crash with Sam Hornish Jr.; that crash cost Johnson 111 points and shrunk his lead on Mark Martin to 73 points. But Johnson rebounded and won at Phoenix the next week to rebuild his points lead to 108 and cruise to the title.
• In 2010 Denny Hamlin had a 33-point lead on Johnson entering Phoenix but a fuel-mileage fiasco forced Hamlin to give up second place late to pit. Hamlin fished 12th and Johnson finished fifth, cutting Hamlin's lead to just 15 points. The image from that race will be the slump-shouldered Hamlin sitting on pit wall after the race and later saying, "This is one of the bigger letdowns I've had." It would get worse the following week when Johnson took the championship from Hamlin at Homestead.
Keselowski noted that he's only racing Johnson, not history. He's right, but Johnson's success at Phoenix is undeniable. That's why Johnson's victory at Texas was critical and why Keselowski raced him the way he did, leading Johnson to say afterward "the gloves are off."
This late in the Chase, there's little time for pleasantries when racing, especially as Keselowski tried to overcome a late miscue that changed the race's complexion. Problems started for Keselowski when slid too deep into his pit stall on his next-to-last pit stop 59 laps from the finish while leading. With an empty pit stall behind him, Keselowski could stop a few feet shy of the front of the box and make it easier to exit around Danica Patrick's car in the pit stall ahead of him. Instead, Keselowski locked his brakes entering his pit stall and slid in the box. His crew pushed his car back so he could get by Patrick, costing him eight spots.
"That was my fault, man," Keselowski said on the radio to his team. "I don't know why but this thing just don't stop without locking the front [brakes]. I see the box. It just won't stop."
Keselowski made it to fourth when the caution flag waved 24 laps from the finish. The team changed only two tires, giving Keselowski the lead -- if he had changed four tires, as everyone else did, he likely wouldn't have been first or second so he could be on the front row for the double-file restart. With track position a key factor, the team gambled on being up front and holding off the field, namely Johnson.
Keselowski withstood Johnson's charge on the restart and then had to do it a second time after another caution. Keselowski lost the lead for one lap as they hit running side-by-side down the frontstretch before he powered by Johnson in turn 1.
"We walked right up to that line," Johnson said referring to potential calamity, "got right to the edge, and then it stopped."
Was it dirty racing?
"I raced hard, and I'm sure someone would say dirty," Keselowski said after his runner-up finish. "Hell, anytime you run close to certain guys you're racing them dirty according to some people. But I raced hard, and we both came back around, so there's something to be said for that."
After another late caution bunched the field, Keselowski could no longer hold off Johnson, whose car had fresher left-side tires, on the restart. If Keselowski couldn't win, the last thing he needed was for Johnson to do so and pull further ahead in the points.
The victory not only helped Johnson build his lead but also gave Johnson the tiebreaker, should the two finish tied in points after Homestead. While Tony Stewart won last year's championship against Carl Edwards on the tiebreaker of wins, Johnson and Keselowski would have to go further if neither won the remaining two races. Both have five wins. NASCAR then would look at who had the most second-place finishes. Johnson has five, Keselowski has three.
"Obviously, it's not going to come easy," Keselowski said of winning the championship. "But anything worth doing in life shouldn't come easy, and I appreciate the efforts of the people that I'm around to make it happen. I appreciate the fact that it's difficult, because it brings out the best in everybody."
That includes Johnson and his team. At Phoenix, their performance has been too much for others in five previous title races.