The Chase for the Sprint Cup championship rolls on to Phoenix International Raceway, where Jimmie Johnson has won the last THREE Chase races. Is this a must-win race for Johnson, who trails Denny Hamlin by 33 points? We'll find out, as long as everything else that's happening at the track.
Here are a few notes to get us started:
• First practice begins at 2 p.m. ET
• Qualifying is at 5:30 p.m. ET
Is it a two-man race?
Kevin Harvick's not worried about that.
"I'm really excited just because the worst we can finish in the points is third. Nothing to lose, everything to gain. No-pressure, no lose situation for us. I like coming from behind."
Harvick says it's all offense from here on out, and that he probably needs to win a race to come back.
"Just seems like this Chase is about taking those wins, and that's the one thing we haven't done."
War of words
Denny Hamlin's crew chief started the war of words last weekend when he said 1) that Jimmie Johnson's crew swap was an act of desperation and 2) that the 11 team is better than the four-time defending champion's team.
Kevin Harvick has a lot to say about this:
"Mike should take his own advice," Harvick said, referring to Ford saying Hamlin needs to keep his focus after Hamlin got into a war of words with Richard Childress Racing at Dover.
"When you're trying to intimidate the guy who's won four championships in a row, you might want to rethink your strategy," Harvick said.
When a reporter said, "Not to pick on Mike Ford," Harvick interrupted, saying, "It's so easy, though."
"He's a crew chief, for God sake," Harvick said later. "I just don't understand this."
Stay tuned for what Hamlin has to say about this.
Is Kyle Busch going to have to tip-toe around NASCAR officials?
"I don't think so, Busch said. "I feel real comfortable with NASCAR officials." He said he has a great "repertoire" with those guys.
Busch said he did have a meeting with J.D. and Joe Gibbs this weekend, though he wouldn't offer up any details on what went on behind closed doors.
Is Kyle Busch in talks with Tony Kanaan to drive in the Truck Series?
"I had a conversation with Tony about it, whether he's interested, he's yet to come back to me about it."
The two have become friends doing the same sponsor events.
Why is the chase so close?
Jeff Burton says after getting in the wreck with Jeff Gordon last week at Texas, he went to his trailer and watched the race. The thing that struck him was that the top 18 cars were separated by a tenth of a second. He says that can be attributed to multi-car teams, the tight box they're in and how competitive the sport has become.
Comment of the Day (so far)
Jeff Burton, on if he was surprised Jeff Gordon came after him after their incident at Texas: "I could tell by the gait in his walk and the look in his eye that he wasn't coming down to talk."
Is this a must-win for Johnson?
He says no, but he has to finish ahead of Hamlin, which is pretty obvious.
Johnson says just because this is the first time he's trailed coming into the penultimate race in the Chase, he insists he is in familiar territory because it's still about performance.
Mind games continued
Johnson isn't taking the bait, refusing to trade barbs with Mike Ford or Denny Hamlin.
"We are Hendrick Motorsports. That 24-48 shop is one unit."
He left it at that.
"I'm not smart enough to play mind games."
"I just get in the car, do my thing and go. The fact that people think so much about what we're trying to do, ends up being a mind game in itself. So they're almost Jedi mind-tricking themselves."
Teammates helping teammates
If Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer were racing for the win at Homstead, and if Harvick winning the race meant the difference between winning and losing the championship, Bowyer said he'd have to consider allowing Harvick to win.
Next up: Sprint Cup practice
• Carl Edwards tops the speed chart in the early going. Other notables: Jimmie Johnson — sixth; Denny Hamlin — 18th; Kevin Harvick — 30th.
• The speed chart hasn't changed much as the practice rolls on. One more notable driver — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is third.
• Hamlin has jumped up the speed chart, sitting seventh now as they are presumably in qualifying trim. Johnson sits 12th, Harvick 20th.
• First practice is over. Here is how the top 10 looked: Edwards, Regan Smith, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick.
Jimmie Johnson was 12th, Denny Hamlin 28th.
What does this mean? Likely that Harvick and Johnson will qualify better than Hamlin.
Denny Hamlin subdued
There were no fireworks coming from the mouth of Denny Hamlin, who was understated in his media session.
Of note, Hamlin said they are missing some speed in the car right now, possibly an result of not having much to work with from the spring race at Phoenix, when Hamlin was still recovering from knee surgery.
Hamlin is a little under the weather, having gotten sick after getting doused with champagne at victory lane in Texas.