JJ in Phoenix

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We’re only six races into the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and this week NASCAR will be making its third visit west of the Mississippi as they roll into Phoenix for the first night race of the year.

Then a week later, they make a stop at Texas before heading back to some traditional roots in Talladega.

With the west side visits still seeming relatively new, even though they’ve been coming out here regularly for over a decade, one thing that seems to be getting old for many is Jimmie Johnson leading in points. It’s only been four straight years with a title, but if you add up the two previous years before he won that he probably should have, and tack on this year’s outstanding performance, the California driver is a huge sign of the new era of NASCAR dominance.

Two weeks ago, Johnson didn’t have his best car ever at Martinsville, but still took it to a top-10 finish. After Kevin Harvick fell out early and Matt Kenseth got punted late, there was Mr. Johnson backing into his familiar position of number one in points.

Even in what may have been his worst car ever for a Martinsville race, he still gains two positions in the standings. The law of physics and averages should always somehow equate for the luck factor balancing out over the long haul, but Johnson seems to have used up more luck than a three-legged dog named Lucky.

Then when you compound just how good he and his team are week to week, you’re left scratching your head saying, “Man, this guy don’t need no luck.”

Ever since Phoenix went to two races a year back in 2006, Johnson has dominated like no other. Heck, even if you include his four races prior to 2006, no one has been better. He’s got an average finish of 5.1 and comes in winning four of the last five Phoenix races. Over his last seven races, he’s finished no worse than fourth. His worst performance ever was 15th, which he’s done twice, and has helped contribute to that awful 5.1 average.

Phoenix starts the mid-range flat track season for NASCAR which also includes New Hampshire and Richmond. Although all are different in configuration, most teams that have success on one track always run well on the others, prompting crew chiefs to usually bring the exact same chassis to each.

The drivers who should give a good run for Johnson’s money include all three Childress drivers, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Martin was stellar at all three tracks, Richmond, New Hampshire and Phoenix at the tail end of last season that included a win and two fourth place finishes. Martin also won this particular race last season, denying Johnson four straight Phoenix wins. The win was the second of his career at Phoenix that also has him with 11 top-5 finishes.

Jeff Burton used to be the Phoenix sun-king while he drove for Jack Roush with two wins and a host of other top-5 finishes. Burton was also equally good at the same time during his reign in Phoenix at New Hampshire.

Last season, his team debuted some new chassis’ down the stretch as they were attempting to get a jump on the 2010 campaign for what was an awful 2009 season for the entire team, and it worked well. Burton finished second in the fall race and has carried that momentum into this year, showing both improved handling and horsepower in nearly every race.

We all know how Denny Hamlin loves Richmond, and he treats Phoenix the same way, except for calling it home. After having a finish of 34th-place in his first Cup race, he’s gone on a tear over his last seven starts there that include four third-place finishes. He finally had something good happen to him at Martinsville with a win and should be set-up nicely to compete this week as well.

The one issue with Hamlin this week may be having to deal with ACL surgery last week. It’s not known yet how it will affect his driving ability. If there is discomfort, Casey Mears will be available to take over during one of the pit stops.

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