Here’s a frightening thought: Aside from Kentucky (where the Cup Series has raced only twice), Phoenix International Raceway is Jimmie Johnson’s best track – or at least his most consistent. With a 5.3 average finish there, that is tops among all other tracks on the circuit. That has to leave the points leader in a very comfortable position as his only competition at this point, Brad Keselowski, has a 22.2 average finish at the one-mile, tri-oval. He did, however, finish fifth there in March. Coming off a 1-2 finish for Johnson and Keselowski, respectively, at Texas last week, there’s no reason to believe – with only seven points separating them – that the two won’t be fighting it out again this weekend.
Here’s a look at the current power rankings as the Chase heads West to Phoenix on Sunday:
1. Jimmie Johnson (Last Week: 1) – Sunday was a perfect example of why this is the best team in the sport. They find a way to run out front even when they don’t have the best car on the track. Early on, Five Time was clearly the favorite, but as the race wore on the No. 48 was fading. It wasn’t until some late cautions came out that the Lowe’s team was able to tweak the car to give it a chance in the closing laps. Now Johnson heads to one of his best venues, a track he’s won four times and has finished outside the top-10 just three times in 18 career starts. That’s just dumb.
2. Brad Keselowski (Last Week: 2) – He showed a lot of grit and poise on Sunday, choosing to race Johnson clean during a late restart and allow the 48 to drive away from him instead of opting for the dirtier choice. Johnson may have gained five points in his lead, but Bad Brad’s decision to live and fight another day at Texas could be something he looks back on as a turning point if he’s able to make up the seven-point deficit he faces with two races to go. No, he hasn’t been great at Phoenix, but his fifth-place finish earlier this season should be enough for him to hang his hat on.
3. Clint Bowyer (Last Week: 3) – Barring some sort of cataclysmic event that sees Johnson and Keselowski finish 42nd and 43rd on Sunday, it’s all over for Bowyer. But what a terrific season he has had. And given the recent history of runner-ups in the Chase, third place might not be a bad place to be when all is said and done. Bowyer picked up his seventh top-10 of the Chase at Texas, but making it eight out of nine this weekend could be tricky given his 16.9 average finishing position. Then again, this hasn’t exactly been a by-the-book-season for Bowyer, has it?.
4. Jeff Gordon (Last Week: 5) – At one point on Sunday the No. 24 was the best car on the track, passing cars at will as he made his way through the field and toward the point. But in the end it was another disappointing finish for Gordon, who has never been able to recover from the 35th at Chicago to begin the Chase. This weekend could be a perfect spot to break out. Gordon doesn’t have a win in NASCAR’s playoff since 2007, but should be considered a top-five favorite this weekend at Phoenix, a track he’s won at twice, including February of 2011.
5. Kasey Kahne (Last Week: 4) – Like Bowyer, Kahne has watched his title hopes slip away over the last two weeks. Outside of a 25th-place finish on Sunday at Texas, Kahne has been very consistent in the Chase – for the second straight season. Kahne has been gaining a ton of confidence in the last two years and should be a favorite as we head to 2013. But before he puts this season in the rearview, he heads to Phoenix, which has been feast or famine for Kahne. In 16 career starts, Kahne has a win, including five top-10s and seven finishes outside the top 25.
6. Matt Kenseth (Last Week: 7) – It was another strong weekend for the future Joe Gibbs pilot. Take away his atrocious start and it’s hard to find too many better than Kenseth over the last six races. With two wins, including three top-fives, Kenseth has gone from the back of the pack to a tie for fifth in the standings. He showed off that rally mentality this weekend at Texas, coming from the back of the pack (mid-race) to finish fourth. Phoenix will be a test for Kenseth (one career win in 20 starts), but it’s clear he wants to end his days with Roush Fenway on a positive note.
7. Tony Stewart (Last Week: 9) – Well that’s better. Smoke registered his second top-five in three weeks, which doesn’t hold a candle to his run in last year’s Chase – but at this point the 14 team will take it. Stealing another top-five this weekend at Phoenix might be a bit of a stretch for the defending Cup champ, as Stewart owns just eight top-fives in 21 career starts, but only one in his last six starts there.
8. Denny Hamlin (Last Week: 6) – It’s been a tough stretch for the 11 team, which hasn’t cracked the top-10 since a runner-up at Charlotte nearly a month ago. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a team that was one of the favorites to win this year’s title. Hamlin was never a factor at Texas, but Phoenix could provide some temporary relief. In 14 career starts at PIR, Hamlin owns six top-fives, including a win earlier this season.
9. Martin Truex Jr. (Last Week: 8) – This has to be a frustrating Chase for Truex, who has never really shown himself to be a threat. With only a runner-up through the first eight races, Truex will need to race hard at Phoenix and Homestead to prove his making the Chase was no fluke. Phoenix will be a test for the 56 team, as Truex has just one top-five in 13 career starts, but he did finish seventh there in the spring.
10. Greg Biffle (Last Week: 10) – Believe it or not, under the old system “The Biff” would be sitting third in points with two races to go. But this isn’t the old system, this is the Chase, and therefore Biffle sits 83 points behind Johnson and 76 points behind Keselowski. Phoenix won’t likely be a track that he’s able to close the gap any tighter given Johnson’s dominance there and Biffle’s 14.1 average finishing position. Although it is worth noting he finished third there in the spring.
Off the pace – Kevin Harvick … Happy’s ninth-place finish at Texas was just his 12th top-10 all season and only his fourth in the last 16 races. Pinch me to help remind me again how he made the Chase?
Top Non-Chaser – Kyle Busch … Rowdy continues to impress with his second straight top-three finish and his sixth top-10 in eight Chase races.