Jimmie Johnson in unfamiliar spot with two races left
For four and 34/36ths Sprint Cup seasons, the racing world has wondered if Jimmie Johnson even knew how to sweat. Now that it is known that indeed he does, the next big question has become: How will the sweating affect his chances to win a fifth ...
For four and 34/36ths Sprint Cup seasons, the racing world has wondered if Jimmie Johnson even knew how to sweat. Now that it is known that indeed he does, the next big question has become: How will the sweating affect his chances to win a fifth straight championship?
This weekend, in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, that question likely will be answered as well.
And, from the sound of it, Johnson himself seems to be wondering what that answer will be. "Time will tell," he said when asked if he can bounce back from a weekend of frustration at Texas.
Pressed up against the Estrella Mountains, PIR will be sitting in the same location on Sunday that it has seemingly sat forever. Johnson will not be.
For the first time since 2005, Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team will start a race in November at the quirky, 1-mile flat track without being the Chase leader.
After finishing ninth last Sunday in Texas, Johnson surrendered the points lead he had acquired at Kansas in Week 3 of the 10-race playoff.
He surrendered it to young, brash Denny Hamlin, who drove his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to victory at TMS.
Hamlin's lead over Johnson is 33 points with two races remaining in the season.
"Not where we want to be," Johnson gulped after Texas.
Hamlin's lead is highly surmountable for Johnson, even when you consider no driver since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 has won the championship after trailing in points with two races to go.
But Johnson's current position is also highly foreign.
"The last four years we have been in a different position," Johnson said earlier this week when asked about his mindset heading to Phoenix. "I have lost plenty of championships in the past and this is racing and it doesn't come easy and you are not going to get what you want every single year and every single weekend."
Also highly foreign to Johnson is his team; or at least that portion of it which will pit his Chevy this weekend.
Last week at Texas, the guys who had been going over the wall for Johnson were replaced en masse by their counterparts from Hendrick stablemate Jeff Gordon's team. They weren't doing the job, Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, said.
This week, it was announced the crew switcheroo would remain in effect for the rest of the season.
Asked if he thought the swap could hurt the effort, Johnson, again, found himself wondering aloud.
"We'll find out," he said. "I have no clue. That's uncharted territory for us."
Fully charted is Johnson's past success at Phoenix. He has four victories in 14 Cup starts in Avondale. Those victories have come in the last six races at the place.
Johnson has never had a DNF at PIR, and his average finish there is 4.9: That's nearly seven spots better than Hamlin and 10 spots better than Kevin Harvick, who is 26 points behind Johnson.
So while Johnson may be sweating in the desert this weekend, he won't be fretting.
"We had a lot of points leads" in the past, he said, "because we went out and won races ... it's not like we backed into a championship and just kind of stumbled upon four in a row."
And he certainly will not be quitting.
"I can promise you this," Johnson said. "I am trying as hard as I can; I know my team is, and we are doing everything we can. Thirty-three points back is not where we want to be, but we are going to work to get back on top."
Kobalt Tools 500
At Phoenix International Raceway; Avondale, Ariz.
When: Sunday, 2:15 p.m.
TV: ESPN, 1 p.m.
Radio: MRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 128
Track layout: 1-mile oval
Race distance: 312 laps/500 kilometers
Estimated pit window: 70-78 laps
Qualifying: Friday, 4:45 p.m. ET
2009 winner: Jimmie Johnson
2009 polesitter: Martin Truex Jr.
Points standings: 1. Denny Hamlin, 6,325; 2. Jimmie Johnson, 6,292; 3. Kevin Harvick, 6,266; 4. Carl Edwards, 6,008; 5. Matt Kenseth, 6,000; 6. Jeff Gordon, 5,994; 7. Kyle Busch, 5,986; 8. Tony Stewart, 5,962; 9. Greg Biffle, 5,953; 10. Clint Bowyer, 5,928; 11. Kurt Busch, 5,890; 12. Jeff Burton, 5,852.