Who will blink first?
The lead in this season’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ has changed for the third time. Now it’s Jimmie Johnson’s turn again to head the standings, by seven points over Matt Kenseth.
It’s hardly breathing room going into the penultimate race of the season, despite the fact that Johnson closed the deal in four consecutive seasons – 2006-09 – when he held the lead with two races remaining and went on to claim championships.
Phoenix International Raceway, which hosts Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 (3 p.m. ET ESPN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) proved to be Johnson’s undoing a year ago.
Holding an identical seven-point advantage, Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet suffered suspension damage late in the race en route to a 32nd-place finish. The accident opened the door for Brad Keselowski to win the 2012 championship.
The leader entering the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s™ penultimate race won the title in six straight seasons. Not so in the last three in which Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Johnson took leads to Phoenix and lost – a fact that can give Johnson pause and Kenseth hope.
The edge at the one-mile track in the Valley of the Sun decidedly falls to Johnson, a four-time winner who recorded Phoenix Chase race victories in 2007-09.
Johnson finished among the top five in 12 of his last 14 Phoenix starts, including a second place in March. He’s led 932 laps double that of Kenseth (212) and third-place Kevin Harvick (420) combined. His average finish is 6.5 in 20 starts, nearly 11 positions better than Kenseth.
Johnson tops six Loop Data statistics including Driver Rating (116.4), Fastest Laps Run (538) and Average Green Flag Speed (125.519).
Johnson is optimistic but hardly ready to celebrate.
“I feel good. But, man, it’s so weird because I’ve been in position before where I’ve had these amazing sensations and feelings that a championship was going to happen, and we were able to do it for those five years in a row,” he said following Sunday’s victory at Texas Motor Speedway. “There were other years where I had those feelings, and it didn’t happen.
“I guess the lesson in all of that is I’m not counting on anything and I have to go to Phoenix and race.”