AVONDALE, Ariz. -- So many times Jimmie Johnson has come to Phoenix International Raceway on the brink of a championship, and so many times he's used a performance on the desert mile to essentially secure the crown. Four of his five titles at NASCAR's premier level have been all but locked down at the foot of the Estrella Mountains, and Sunday he laid the groundwork for what would be title number six.
Phoenix has always loomed large for Johnson, a Southern California native who so focuses on the Arizona track that he even made a rare NASCAR Nationwide Series start here in the spring in an effort to learn a little more for the track's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup event. It was mission accomplished -- his third-place result Sunday increased his lead to 28 points over Matt Kenseth, and Johnson can move within a single title of knotting the King and the Intimidator with a finish of 23rd or better next week.
But even as the scene shifts from the desert to the Florida coastline for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Phoenix still looms large, and not just because of what Johnson did here Sunday in weathering a pair of early scrapes to place his boot heel on the neck of the competition. Winning won't be enough for Kenseth or Kevin Harvick, the other two drivers still mathematically alive in this Chase. For anyone else to have a shot, they're left to hope Johnson has another outing just like the one he did at Phoenix.
Not Sunday -- last fall, when he suffered the cut tire that cleared the path for Brad Keselowski to celebrate his first career Sprint Cup championship.
"We saw the same thing last year -- the 48 comes in here ahead and has a miscue, has a problem, and that's just it," said Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth's crew chief. "That's why it's so hard to win these championships, that's why people work their guts out for them, and they're very rewarding when you do win them. These guys have worked over the last eight weeks, nine weeks, as hard as they've ever worked trying to put great cars on the race track and minimize mistakes, and they've done a really good job in that. We came into this race just seven points back, and it's been a greater season than we could ever imagine, and it's not over yet."
Possible? Certainly. Likely? Well, that's another matter altogether. Last season Johnson limped to the finish, his cut tire at Phoenix and busted rear gear at Homestead representing his first back-to-back failures in the Chase since the inaugural playoff a decade ago. Those episodes stand out precisely because they're so rare for a team that more often has excelled when the pressure is on. But like Tiger Woods losing a major after leading into the final round, there were signs that the mighty No. 48 team is fallible after all. And right now, Kenseth's team is clinging to them like a life raft.
It might be able to look in the mirror, as well. Another, more recent example of a championship-contending team suffering though an uncharacteristically tough day in the thick of the Chase is what happened to Kenseth on Sunday, when the sport's paragon of consistency was absolutely lost. There was no cut tire, no blown accident, no wreck that took him out. It was a more gradual and much more painful decline, small mistakes building on one another until the No. 20 car was two laps down and Johnson's lead was growing as wide as the bright blue sky.
Talk about an outlier. If the team that leads the series in race victories and led the Chase for six of the first eight weeks can whiff that badly on a setup, can't anyone? What made Sunday's turn of events so shocking was that the No. 20 team has thrived off improving their cars as events have gone along, using adjustments to make the best of races in which their vehicles weren't fastest off the truck. They did that at Dover, did that at Charlotte, did that at Texas, and everyone assumed they'd do the same thing at Phoenix.
Except they didn't. "The type of race we had today, I don't wish anything on anybody, but it can happen to anybody, and it can happen next week (to Johnson)," Ratcliff said. "We just have to put our best foot forward and try to win that race."
Still, all Johnson needs is 23rd -- which is exactly where Kenseth wound up Sunday in Phoenix, as bad as it seemed. Johnson has never won at Homestead, and his last two outings there have resulted in finishes of 32nd or worse. That happens again next weekend, and suddenly we may very well have a three-man race. Or Johnson could unleash a performance like he did in crucial Chase finales in 2004 and 2010, both of them runner-up finishes, the latter resulting in his fifth championship.
Another one of those, and we'll be saying hello to Six-Time.
"We're going to go down there and race as hard as we can," Johnson said. "I think the safest place on the race track is up front, and if I look back to our Texas performance, we found a way to race smart, stay out of trouble and still get the race won. I would love to win the race and win the championship, but we'll just have to see how things develop in the race and where we are relative to (Kenseth). The big prize at the end of the day is what we're focused on. It's not so much that individual win, but we need to go down there and be prepared and treat Friday and Saturday like we need to win the race."
It's fun to entertain the what-ifs, and indeed a blown engine or some other disaster would alter the picture decidedly. But given Johnson's history, it's probably more likely that the real battle at Homestead will be between Kenseth and Harvick for second place. They're separated by just six points now after the latter's victory on Sunday, and falling to third in the final standings would be a cruel blow indeed for a driver like Kenseth, who's been the class of the entire season up until the past two weeks.
Leave it to Harvick, never one to mince words, to keep it real. When it comes to beating Jimmie Johnson, he has one last-gasp emergency measure tucked up his fire suit sleeve.
"We're talking about locking him in a Porta-Potty," he joked, "so that should sum it up."
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