It’s finally November and the end of the long and grueling Sprint Cup season is now just two races away, in fact both the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide Series also have just two races remaining. All three of these series will roll into Phoenix International Raceway this weekend with the championship of each still very much up for grabs.
The sanctioning body has to be loving it because there is nothing as great for NASCAR as to have all three of its major titles still up for grabs with only two races remaining in the season. This is the kind of competition that the sport needs if it is going to sell tickets during this time of economic hardship and it is the best way to get fans back in front of their televisions on the weekend.
The Craftsman Truck Series will take the green flag on Friday night with a tight battle between points leader Johnny Benson and second-place Ron Hornaday Jr. Benson entered Texas with a 33-point lead but Hornaday Jr. took the checkered flag and by doing so cut Benson’s lead down to just six points.
On Saturday, the Nationwide Series will take to the track with a couple of Sprint Cup drivers still fighting for the title. Clint Bowyer holds a 91-point lead over Car Edwards, which may sound like a safe lead but a finish by Bowyer of 25th or less combined with an Edwards win would put Edwards in first place going into the season’s final race at Miami.
In the Cup Series, Jimmie Johnson left Atlanta with a commanding 183-point lead over Carl Edwards, which was supposed to make the stops at Texas and Phoenix nothing more than window dressing for the final stop of the year at Miami where Johnson would finally get to hoist the Sprint Cup trophy up in the air. All of that changed suddenly at Texas when Edwards led 212 of 334 laps on his way to his eighth win of the season. The win, combined with Johnson’s 15th-place finish, cut into the lead by 80 points with Edwards now heading into the final two contests of the year trailing by only 103 points.
Success at Phoenix can be tough no matter in what series you are competing and that comes from the track’s unique layout. It’s a one-mile tri-oval but a closer look at the configuration reveals that the track actually has a fifth turn going into the tri-oval portion of the track that makes it different from the tri-ovals of Charlotte, Texas and Atlanta. The track’s four major turns can also cause somewhat of a problem, especially to crew chiefs when they try to set their cars up. The banking in turns one and two is 11 degrees while turns three and four only have nine degrees of banking.
When looking back at those drivers who have had some recent success at Phoenix, Jimmie Johnson quickly comes to mind. He won his first race of this season at the track back in April and is the defending champion of this weekend’s race. Edwards finished fourth back in he spring and last season experienced engine problems which forced him to a 42nd-place finish after only completing 42 laps. He did, however, sit on the pole in last season’s race so a repeat of that would give him a leg up on the rest of the field and also allow him to have first pick in pit location, which is so valuable during those late race pit stops.
Johnson no doubt will be feeling some pressure this weekend, but every driver should if he is competing for a championship. He still is in the lead and he is the sport’s two-time defending champion, which will allow him and his entire team to enter Phoenix with the necessary confidence to go on and win their third consecutive title. Even though this was an election year, don’t take this as my endorsement of the “candidate”; just take it as my way of saying the title is still his until someone can take it away from him on the track.
Shout out: Kyle Busch tied Sam Ard’s Nationwide Series record of 10 wins in a season with his win at Texas. Busch announced after the race he would give Ard $100,000 to help him with his battle with Alzheimer’s disease. It was a nice gesture on his part as the former two-time Nationwide Series champion is also having financial problems.
Event: Checkers O’Reilly Auto Parts 500
Track: Phoenix International Raceway (1-mile tri-oval, 1 & 2 – 11 degrees, 3 & 4 – 9 degrees)
Date: Nov. 9, 3:45 p.m. TV: ABC
Radio: MRN Defending Champion: Jimmie Johnson