Phoenix II: Series round 35 preview

* Hamlin Staring Down A Championship * Johnson In Uncharacteristic Position This Late * In The Loop: Harvick Is Chasing The Top Two Denny Hamlin On Top Of Standings With Two Races To Go Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota) has done what...

* Hamlin Staring Down A Championship
* Johnson In Uncharacteristic Position This Late
* In The Loop: Harvick Is Chasing The Top Two

Denny Hamlin On Top Of Standings With Two Races To Go

Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota) has done what no one has been able to do in the last four seasons -- take the standings lead from four-time series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) with two races remaining in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Hamlin is 33 points ahead of Johnson, who's second, and 59 points ahead of third-place Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Pennzoil/Shell Chevrolet).

The season has come full circle for Hamlin as the series heads to Phoenix International Raceway this weekend. Earlier in the year, two weeks before the series came to Phoenix, Hamlin made the decision to have surgery on his injured left knee. Instead of only running a few of the race laps as planned, Hamlin stuck it out and finished two laps down in 30th, which rallied the No. 11 team together.

Hamlin tweeted after the Phoenix race, "I knew there was no point in staying in after we lost 2 laps in the pits. But I know my guys would do it for me. I couldn't let them down."

Hamlin's boss, Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs, noticed.

"Watching what he went through, through his knee surgery, a major knee surgery, and then a week later you're in a car?" Gibbs said. "That's probably as mentally tough as you're going to see in any sport. So I think the guys really respected that and appreciated that."

It was at that period of time that Hamlin's season took off. The very next week he posted his first win of the season at Texas. Now he leads the series in wins (eight) after completing the sweep of both races at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend. He has posted two poles, 14 top fives and 18 top 10s in 2010.

"I'm going to race Phoenix as if I'm 33 points behind to be honest with you," Hamlin said. "There's no comfortable margin going into Homestead because anything can happen. I'm not going to be conservative having the lead. I'm going to want to stretch that out before we get to Homestead."

Hamlin has made 10 starts at Phoenix posting one pole, five top fives and six top 10s.

"We still know going into Phoenix that that's a great racetrack for both of those guys (Johnson and Harvick), and it's been a very up-and-down race track for me," Hamlin said. "We've got to go there with our guns loaded and see if we can't get another win, and I'm going to race like we need to win from here on out."

Johnson Needs To Rebound And Phoenix Could Be The Place To Do It

Jimmie Johnson will be facing an uphill battle the final two races of the season. In his four previous championships, Johnson has never given up the lead with two races to go. In fact, of his four championship seasons, Johnson's closest point margin heading into Phoenix was 17 points over Roush Fenway Racing driver Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford) in 2006.

The last time someone other than Johnson had the standings lead heading into the final two races of the season was Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet) in 2005. Unfortunately for Johnson, Stewart won the series title in '05 while Johnson went on to finish the season fifth in the standings.

Not since Alan Kulwicki did it in 1992 has a driver taken the standings lead in the final two races of the season. Kulwicki overcame an 85-point deficit to win the title over Bill Elliott.

While the task at hand for Johnson may be daunting, it is achievable. He is 33 points behind Hamlin, but he has won the last three fall races at Phoenix. This weekend he is going for his fourth consecutive fall race win at the famed 1-mile raceway. He has made 14 starts at Phoenix, posting one pole, four wins, nine top fives and 12 top 10s, including finishing third there earlier this season. His average finish at Phoenix is 4.2, which is 4.5 positions better than his closest competitor, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin (No. 5 Chevrolet), who boasts an average finish of 8.7.

The NASCAR Pre-Race Loop Data for Phoenix has Johnson towering over his competitors. He is ranked first in three major categories: Driver Rating (123.7); Average Running Position (4.902) and Laps in the Top 15 (95.9% of his laps completed).

Gordon And Burton Fueling The Feud Flames

A good indication that the competitive intensity of NASCAR is red hot is when two veterans like Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) and Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) battle it out on the track, resulting in an accident and a physical altercation shortly after.

Both Burton and Gordon are known as the voices of reason in the garage, but this past weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, the competitor within got the better of the two drivers.

"That kind of stuff is just ridiculous and uncalled for," Gordon said last Sunday after an accident with Burton.

"I just couldn't believe how much respect I lost for a guy like Jeff (Burton) to do something like that. I thought it was really stupid."

"I certainly wanted to show him how upset I was and I'm not ashamed of anything I did."

The altercation looks to be the latest feud amongst drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage. Both Gordon and Burton are in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup; while neither are in contention for the championship, both want to finish the season strong.

Gordon is sixth in the standings, 331 points behind leader Denny Hamlin. He has posted one pole, 11 top fives and 17 top 10s in 34 starts this season.

Gordon has made 23 starts at Phoenix International Raceway, posting three poles, one win, nine top fives and 17 top 10s; including a second-place finish at the 1-mile track earlier this season.

Burton is 12th in the standings, 473 points behind Hamlin. He has posted six top fives and 15 top 10s in 34 starts this season.

Burton has made 22 starts at Phoenix posting two wins, six top fives and 12 top 10s.

Watch for these two to continue the great competition at Phoenix because both drivers have similar average finishes -- Gordon (10.4) and Burton (11.4).

Ford And Knaus Take Different Paths To Same Championship Goal

It would be difficult to argue that Mike Ford, crew chief for Denny Hamlin's No. 11 team, is not a fierce competitor. It would be even harder to argue that it wasn't his leadership and determination, along with the toughness of his driver, that has willed this team in the right direction this season. But there is no argument that sitting atop the standings with two races remaining was this team's goal from day one.

Ford is in his fifth season with Hamlin and the two have built quite the successful relationship.

The tandem have made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup all five seasons they have been together. This season, the championship is nearly in their grasp but Ford and Hamlin know they will have to beat the four-time series champion duo of crew chief Chad Knaus and and driver Jimmie Johnson first.

"We are staying focused on what we need to do," Ford said. "We saw them (the No. 48 team) making mistakes, saw them studying us real hard, and when you put your focus on watching other people, you make mistakes. So I was glad to see that they are watching us and paying attention.

That means they are chasing. And they made mistakes in doing so."

This past weekend, Knaus made an unusual change during the race at Texas when he completely switched out the No. 48 team's pit crew with that of teammate Jeff Gordon.

"It's something new, for sure," Johnson said.

"It's nothing we've done in the past. But I just watched the World Series and when a pitcher is not doing his job, they make a change and get someone in who can."

"It's like changing a spring or changing a shock," Knaus said. "You have to put the best components together to try to win the championship." Hamlin, Ford and the No. 11 team closed last season by posting a third-place finish at Phoenix and a win at Homestead-Miami.

"I think being in the Chase for the last five years we've learned something during the course of each one that's gotten us to the point where we're at right now," Hamlin said. "I feel like we've prepared for this moment for a long time. I've never questioned our strategy, even though our strategy has been questioned at times, and I feel like we're doing what's best for us."

Roush Fenway Racing Quietly Resurges Late In The Chase

The three Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contenders representing Roush Fenway Racing -- Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford), Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Ford) and Greg

Biffle (No. 16 American Red Cross Ford) -- have been making gains in the points standings over the last few weeks.

Leading the Roush stable is Edwards, currently fourth in the standings, 317 points behind Hamlin.

Edwards has posted two poles, seven top fives and 17 top 10s this season.

He started the Chase seeded ninth and has climbed five spots, to fourth, by posting one top five and three top 10s in the first eight races of the 10-race Chase.

Edwards has made 12 starts at Phoenix, posting one pole, four top fives and eight top 10s.

Only eight points behind is Kenseth who is currently fifth in the standings, 325 points behind Hamlin.

Kenseth has posted six top fives and 13 top 10s this season.

He started the Chase seeded 11th and has battled back six positions to fifth in the standings.

Kenseth's recent success is due to him posting one top five and three top 10s in the first eight races of the Chase, including a second-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend.

Kenseth has made 16 starts at Phoenix, posting one win, five top fives and seven top 10s.

Bringing up the rear of the Roush Fenway group is Greg Biffle, currently ninth in the standings, 372 points behind Hamlin.

Biffle has posted two wins, eight top fives and 17 top 10s this season.

He started the Chase seeded seventh in the standings, but after losing an engine at Auto Club Speedway and finishing 33rd at Martinsville, he has had to work his way back from 11th in the standings.

In the first eight races of the Chase, Biffle has posted one win and three top fives.

Biffle has made 13 starts at Phoenix, posting three top fives and four top 10s.

In The Loop: Harvick And Logano Finding Stride During Chase Races

With two races to go and two competitors ahead of him in the standings, Kevin Harvick has little time to waste if he wants to win the championship.

Harvick has posted three wins, 15 top fives and a series-leading 24 top 10s this season. He is third in the standings, 59 points behind Hamlin.

During the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Harvick has finished in the top 10 in seven of the first eight races and four of those finishes were in the top five. He also has a Driver Rating above 100.0 in five of the first eight races of the Chase.

Harvick should reflect his nickname of 'Happy' this weekend at Phoenix. He swept both Phoenix races in 2006 and in doing so, scored a Perfect Driver Rating (150.0) in the fall event.

Phoenix pre-race loop data has Harvick ranked 10th in the series in Driver Rating with a 94.6, which isn't far off of standings leader Denny Hamlin's Driver Rating of 95.2.

Harvick betters Hamlin slightly in the Average Running Position category with a 11.979 to Hamlin's 12.775.

Harvick and Hamlin almost mirror each other in the Laps in the Top 15 loop category with Harvick having completed 69.8% of his laps at Phoenix in the top 15 while Hamlin completed 69.0%.

The hottest driver outside of the Chase for NASCAR Sprint Cup is Joey Logano (No. 20 Home Depot Toyota). He has scored the fourth most points during the first eight Chase races behind Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick. Logano has rallied off four consecutive top-10 finishes.

This past weekend at Texas he posted his highest Driver Rating of the season at 115.2.

Logano has made three starts at Phoenix posting one top-10 finish.

The Phoenix pre-race loop data shows Logano with a Driver Rating of 73.4 and an Average Running Position of 19.755.

On The Line With Jeff Burton

Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) was this week's guest on the NASCAR Cam Video Teleconference on Tuesday.

Following are some excerpts:

Q.: Can you explain how Richard Childress Racing can be so off the lens last year and then this year being so good?

Burton: Last year, the things we were doing this time of the year two years ago is why we got in position last year. We didn't enter the year with cars that were fast enough. Not from a lack of effort, not from a lack of trying, we just made some decisions that ended up being wrong.

Those decisions were easy to make because we didn't have the information that we needed.

RCR has always been a team that's heavily invested in testing, atâ€'track testing. We got better, got smarter through doing that.

NASCAR made the right decision to very, very, very much limit testing. I think that had a huge negative impact on us, and we weren't prepared for that. We had to adjust the way we run our company from a competition standpoint. We had to adjust the way we build our cars, adjust the way that we get smarter.

We couldn't do it through testing anymore, we had to do it through other means. We made major investments in a lot of different areas and that led us to better answers, better decisions on how we were going to build our race cars and how we were going to set our race cars up and how we were going to drive our race cars and build the engines. And all of that has culminated into faster race cars.

We just have better information today than we did a year ago.

Q.: With the top three drivers so close in the standings right now, do you see a favorite out there right now or is it anyone's ballgame?

Burton: You know what, I said last week, I don't know. If Las Vegas came to me and said handicap this thing, I don't know how I'd do that. I don't know who has the advantage. I'm much more knowledgeable of what's going on with the 29 and how they've run it and looked at the racetrack, which one of those teams doesn't run well?

I can remember going to Homestead and Phoenix and the 29 being the dominant car. I can also remember that happening with the other two cars.

There isn't a weak point, an obvious weak point. They're all three running very well. I think the 11 car -- they're definitely very confident.

They believe in what they're doing. They believe they're driving the ship and that others are following.

I think that they look really tough right now.

But I wouldn't count anybody out. I know Kevin Harvick is ready to go win this championship. I know all those guys on that team have put every bit of effort into it. I don't know who you'd pick. But I know it won't be a surprise if any of the three win.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

* Spoiler This Week: Mark Martin

This week's spoiler candidate for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series goes to Hendrick Motorsports driver Mark Martin. Martin is coming off a second-place finish at Martinsville, an 11th-place finish at Talladega and a third--place finish at Texas.

Martin has made 27 starts at Phoenix International Raceway posting one pole, two wins, 12 top fives and 18 top 10s including starting from the pole and winning the 2009 spring event.

The NASCAR Pre-Race Loop Data shows Martin second only to Jimmie Johnson in the category of Driver Rating with a 102.3. Martin is ranked fifth in the series in Average Running Position at Phoenix (11.208) and has completed 67.3% of his laps there in the top 15.

* Pre-Race Salute To The Military

To help NASCAR fans celebrate Veteran's Day, Phoenix International Raceway will pay tribute to the generations of men and women who have served or are serving in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Kobalt Tools 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pre-race show beginning at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 14.

The pre-race show will feature more than 60,000 American Flags waving in the grandstands donated by the Paralyzed Veterans of America and also will include the following:

- A "Welcome Home" ceremony for 150 guardsmen from the Arizona National Guard;

- Recognition of Arizona selections for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl;

- A performance by the U.S. Army Band;

- An aerial entrance to the track by skydivers carrying the American Flag;

- Display of a 200-foot American Flag by Arizona Project ChalleNGe;

- National anthem by acclaimed trumpeter Dr. Jesse McGuire;

- F-16 fly-over by Luke Air Force Base;

- Luke Air Force Base Honor Guard.

* "OFFSPEED" Charity Event

Former series champion Dale Jarrett, Arizona Diamondbacks Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Brandon Webb and Phoenix International Raceway President Bryan R. Sperber will team up to host the annual "Offspeed" charitable fundraiser to help kick off PIR's November NASCAR weekend on Nov. 10.

As part of the event, former Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner -- who retired this year after five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals -- will be honored for his community service.

"Offspeed" is set to take place at Frank and Albert's at the Arizona Biltmore Resort, on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. MT. The event will benefit "The Dale Jarrett Foundation" and Webb's "K Foundation," both of which are dedicated to helping children and families.

Tickets for "Offspeed" are $250 each, and provide guests with the chance to spend an evening with Jarrett, Warner and Webb while enjoying food and drink, and an exclusive charity auction,

all while contributing to two deserving charities.

All proceeds benefit the aforementioned charitable foundations.

Presenting sponsorships for the event are also available, with packages starting at $10,000.

Those interested in attending or sponsoring are encouraged to contact Stacy Kutz of Phoenix International Raceway at (623) 463-5632 or

Up Next: Homestead-Miami

The 2010 season finale -- the Ford 400 -- is next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, Nov. 21.

Aptly named the 'Sunshine State' for its great weather year-round, the Florida and Homestead-Miami area should provide the perfect scenery for the conclusion of another great NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.

The television broadcast starts at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN2 with the race at 1 p.m. on ESPN.

This season's series standings leader, Denny Hamlin, won the Ford 400 last season after starting 38th and going on to lead the most laps.

Hamlin has made five starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway, posting one win and three top-five finishes.

Jimmie Johnson sat on the pole for the 2009 Ford 400. It was his fourth pole of the season.

Johnson went to clinch his fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup title last season after finishing fifth in the event.

Fast Facts

The Race: Kobalt Tools 500
The Place: Phoenix International Raceway; Avondale, Ariz. (1-mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, Nov. 14
The Time: 3 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 312 laps / 500 kilometers

TV: ESPN, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN/Sirius NASCAR Radio, Channel 128. (Local-KGME-AM 910)

2009 Polesitter: Martin Truex Jr.
2009 Winner: Jimmie Johnson

Schedule Prior To Race Day: (Times local/MT)
Friday--Practice, 12-1:30 p.m.; Qualifying, 3:45 p.m.
Saturday--Practice, 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. and 12:50-1:50 p.m.

-source: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Greg Biffle , Jimmie Johnson , Martin Truex Jr. , Carl Edwards , Denny Hamlin , Chad Knaus , Mark Martin , Alan Kulwicki
Teams Richard Childress Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Roush Fenway Racing , Joe Gibbs Racing