November 13, 2009

The week prior to the Texas race, Jimmie Johnson, like the consummate polished pro he is, stayed "on message" and preached caution, urging anyone who cared to listen that anything could happen with three races remaining.

Most chose to ignore his pleas, figuring there was no way the Chase's most ruthless driver would do anything but waltz into a historic and unprecedented fourth crown. Turns out the champ had a point, as a third-lap tangle with Sam Hornish Jr., via an assist from David Reutimann, sent the No. 48 car hard into the inside wall and straight back to the garage. The idea that Johnson's crew, with assorted members of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'steams, managed to repair the blitzed Lowe's Chevrolet was little short of remarkable and the fifteen points Johnson salvaged -- finishing 38th rather than 43rd -- might be the difference between first and second place this season. Regardless, his poor finish has given Gordon and Mark Martin hope that the Championship is still a possibility, albeit a vague one.

The penultimate race will be held at Phoenix International Raceway, this weekend or PIR for short. It's a one-mile flat track tri-oval, so as you select your Fantasy line-ups this weekend, keep an eye on those drivers who excel at the other flat tracks on the Sprint Cup slate and, naturally, those drivers still in the hunt for the big trophy.

Jimmie Johnson: After such sheer dominance in the Chase the past three years, it's almost impossible to fathom that Johnson found himself in trouble last weekend. Luckily for JJ, though, we head to a track where he has had phenomenal success. His points lead maybe down to a "meager" 73 points, when compared to the ludicrously healthy 184-point advantage he enjoyed taking the green flag at Texas, but he's still very much in pole position. Before Mark Martin won the first race at PIR this season, Johnson had won three in a row at PIR, and in his previous eight races in the desert, he has finished no lower than seventh. Of course JJ could prove to be fallible again this weekend, but that seems very unlikely. If you can still activate the presumptive champ don't hesitate.

By the Numbers: Johnson's average finish at PIR is 5.4 and in 12 attempts, his "lowest" ever finish is 15th (twice).

Mark Martin: The sentimental favorite received a huge shot in the arm last weekend with a fourth place finish at Texas. Headed back to the track where he broke a 97-race winless streak, Martin hopes that he can repeat his performance in the eighth race of the season and lock down a maximum points day. There's reason to suggest he might: Martin has 16 top-10 finishes in 25 races at PIR, not to mention a pair of wins and 10 top-five efforts. Whether or not his efforts will stretch the Championship fight into the final race remains to be seen, but after finishing Talladega on his roof, he can't have expected to still be in the hunt. To some extent, Martin is playing with house money.

By the Numbers: Martin has led 833 laps at Phoenix including 157 of 312 earlier in the year.

Denny Hamlin: It's truly been a case of feast or famine for Denny Hamlin in the Chase. He won at Martinsville, finished second at Loudon and Texas and placed fifth in Kansas, but he also has three DNFs which eviscerated his chance at the big prize. With no big picture issues on the table, Hamlin can race for the win as one of the pre-eminent flat track drivers on the circuit. In his eight starts at PIR, Hamlin has four top-fives and only one poor finish (34th). The Chesterfield, Va., native finished sixth in April, so expect a similar type of run this Sunday in his 150th start at the Sprint Cup level.

By the Numbers: Bizarrely, Hamlin has an identical average start and finish at PIR of 10.4

Kevin Harvick: Harvick and the inimitable Kyle Busch will be going for the triple this weekend, racing in the Trucks, Nationwide and, of course, the Cup Series. It's fair to say that it's been a disastrous season for the nine-year veteran, but PIR is a track at which he has historically performed well, having swept both races in 2006. He has also recorded three top-fives and six more top-10s, with only two sub-par finishes in 13 starts. It seems a stretch to suggest that he might snap his two-year winless streak, but a solid finish doesn't appear to be out of the question.

By the Numbers: Harvick has completed 4041 of the 4060 laps he's run at PIR.

Jeff Burton: It has been a down year for Richard Childress Racing and, like Harvick, Burton has suffered through the dip in fortunes. After making the Chase in each of the past three years, Burton occupied had a chance in the Chase for the first half of the season, until a 34th place at Infineon saw him slip permanently out of the top-12. But with a fifth place finish at Talladega and a ninth place run at Texas, Burton comes into the penultimate race with some much needed momentum. Burton has traditionally run well at Phoenix, winning twice, with five top-fives and eleven top-10s. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1996, when he was running the Exide Batteries Car for Jack Roush, to find the last time he finished outside the top-15.

By the Numbers: Burton has an average finish of 11.2 at PIR. The only track at which he has a lower finish is Las Vegas (9.8)

Brian Vickers: Brian Vickers sits some 520-points back from Jimmie Johnson in the 12th and final spot, but just making the big dance was a huge step for all those at Red Bull Racing, in their third year of operations. For Vickers, there is plenty of positive energy to carry into 2010, but in keeping with his relatively poor performances in the past eight races, PIR is not a venue Vickers is going to get too excited about. In 10 attempts, Vickers has just one top-five and, in this race last year, he finished 42nd and completed only 29 laps. It's not out of the question for him to run well this weekend, but there are plenty of other better options this weekend.

By the Numbers: Vickers has an average finish of 19.3 at PIR.

Next Up: We start where we finish as the Sprint Cup circus heads back to Florida and Homestead-Miami Speedway for the last race of the 2009 season.

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