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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Two races to go in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, with Denny Hamlin leading Jimmie Johnson by 33 points, Kevin Harvick by 59. Here are five questions going into Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway:
Denny Hamlin is surrounded on pit road by the enemy, namely Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the front and Jeff Burton in the back. Don't for a second think that's coincidental. Earnhardt is Johnson's teammate, Burton is Harvick's.
If given the chance, both Earnhardt and Burton will do everything they can to make getting in and out of his pit stall extremely difficult for Hamlin.
Johnson and Harvick will pit near the entrance to pit road.
Word from the track: "I'm more excited for the possibilities than I am nervous that we'll end up faltering and not winning it, to be honest with you. I think we have a great opportunity here to do some great things, we just hope the things that we can't control go well for us and that's all we can really hope for." — Denny Hamlin
Much has been made of Hendrick Motorsports' decision this past week to swap out Johnson's pit crew in favor of teammate Jeff Gordon's. It's been called an act of desperation by some (Mike Ford, crew chief for Denny Hamlin), doing what you gotta do by others (Chad Knaus, crew chief for Johnson).
Whatever it is, pit stops will be crucial in Sunday's race. Phoenix is a tough place to pass, meaning teams will rely on fast pit stops to gain track position. This will be especially true for Johnson, who qualified a disappointing 21st.
Word from the track: "[It's] certainly a tough decision, and my heart's out to my 48 guys that won't be crewing the car this weekend. But it's go time and we need to make a decision and hopefully the decision that's the best for our race team to win a championship this year. Only time will tell what that decision turns out to be." — Jimmie Johnson
Denny Hamlin will be the favorite to win next weekend's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He won there a year ago and this season has been as good as anyone on the intermediate tracks.
If Hamlin's record at Homestead holds up, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Johnson to make up any ground on Hamlin next weekend, meaning he has to get it done at Phoenix.
Word from the track: "I think Jimmie is still the guy to beat just based on how they've performed in really high-pressure situations over the last half-decade. They just have an ability and Jimmie has an ability, and I'm not saying that Denny doesn't have that ability, but Jimmie has proven that they can do that." — Carl Edwards
It's amazing, really, that Harvick trails by 59 points. His average finish in the Chase (6.1) would have been good enough to win titles in four of the six previous Chases. Unfortunately for him, neither Hamlin nor Johnson has faltered even once. On top of that, they've each won in the Chase, while Harvick hasn't.
Harvick still thinks he has a shot, and he has to, but unless Hamlin and Johnson both have an issue in one of the final two races, making up 59 points is a tall order.
Word from the track: "There's really nothing else that matters at this point. Just throw it all out there and if it gets rough, it gets rough – if it doesn't then we just go race and see where it all falls in the end." — Kevin Harvick
He's won the last three Chase races at PIR, hasn't finished lower than fourth there in the last eight races and has only finished outside the top seven twice in 14 starts.
That being said, keep an eye on Carl Edwards, who not only won the pole but was the fastest in both practice sessions on Saturday.
Word from the track: "I think this track, like almost all the tracks we race on now, track position is just really important and it's because everyone is so competitive and the field is separated by such a small amount, so that first pit stall will help us and that clean air at the beginning of the race will help us, and, hopefully, I can race mistake-free and capitalize on all that." — Carl Edwards