The penultimate round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup takes to the track Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. Here's a look at the storylines and drivers to watch for during the AdvoCare 500.
Can Kenseth keep pace with Johnson?
By all appearances Jimmie Johnson holds the edge over Matt Kenseth Sunday. Johnson not only is starting on the pole, but Phoenix is a track where he has a long history of success, whereas Kenseth has often struggled on the one-mile oval.
However, if there has been one constant throughout the Chase it's that when one of the two championship contenders has seemingly had the advantage, the other rises to meet the challenge.
Two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway, it seemed Johnson would create some point separation between himself and his rival. Instead, Kenseth led the most laps and finished second, while Johnson placed fifth. The unexpected result moved Kenseth into a tie with Johnson for the points lead.
Can Johnson win Sunday and add to the seven-point gap he holds over Kenseth? Undoubtedly. There is just as good a chance, however, that Kenseth does what he did at Martinsville: outperform Johnson, erase the deficit and in turn, make next week's season-finale a winner-take-all affair.
Track position is everything
Due to myriad reasons, primarily the challenges of the Generation-6 car and depth of competition, track position is almost always the name of the game. But with a slick, one-groove surface that doesn't chew tires track position might be more pervasive at Phoenix than anywhere else. As the spring race featured limited side-by-side racing with most passing occurring via pit stops or in the immediate laps following a restart.
Goodyear conducted a September tire-test at Phoenix and is bringing a different compound to use this weekend. That tire was used in both the Truck Series and Nationwide Series races, and the evidence suggests tire wear will again be minimal Sunday. All of which means track position will again be vital with two-tire stops commonplace.
"It will be a challenge for sure," Denny Hamlin said after qualifying second. "Everyone seems to be fighting a tight condition. I know that Goodyear changed the tire here and it definitely isn't laying any rubber down, so that's going to be a challenge, especially to get the track to widen out will be a challenge this weekend for sure.
"Passing is very, very difficult so we obviously have part of that down, now we can think about what strategy can keep us up there."
The end is near for Harvick, RCR
It was a year ago this weekend Kevin Harvick made the bombshell announcement he would be leaving Richard Childress Racing following the 2013 season. It seemed then the relationship between Harvick and Childress would instantly dissolve.
In a precursor to what was to come, Harvick and Childress didn't become immersed in controversy, as the 29 team instead went to Victory Lane for its only win of 2012. And with the exception of a terse exchange two weeks ago centered on the family dynamics within RCR, the partnership has thrived this season. Harvick has won three races and is ranked third overall in the standings.
"We've been able to win several races as we've gone through the year," Harvick said. "I don't know that anybody really knew what to expect as we went through time, and went through week-after-week to see how it was all going to work. It's kind of been a week-by-week thing. I think everybody has worked through it fairly well."
Unfortunately, the championship Harvick and Childress have long sought will not come to fruition. With two races left in the season -- and their partnership -- Harvick is 40 points behind Johnson and 33 behind Kenseth.
"I think 40 points is a lot to overcome," Harvick said. "We can control how we run, and that's about it. Having both of those guys have major catastrophes in two races is asking for all but a miracle in my mind."
1. Jimmie Johnson
The pole-sitter has been among the quickest all weekend, and has won a track-best four races -- though none on the new configuration. No matter, this is Johnson's race to lose.
2. Denny Hamlin
If Johnson is the consensus favorite then Hamlin should be a close second, as he has a win, a second and a third in his last three Phoenix starts. He will start on the outside of the front row and is determined to win his first of the year and extend a winning streak dating back to 2006.
3. Matt Kenseth
His record here doesn't justify this ranking -- an average finish of 17.2, only nine top-10s in 22 starts. Then again, you could say the same thing about Kenseth this season at New Hampshire and Martinsville, yet in both cases he defied expectation.