Points championship could
boil down to Phoenix

Nov 2, 2004 5:41 AM

It only took one race for the near impossible and improbable to happen in the NASCAR Nextel Cup series.

Last week’s race in Atlanta saw the top three in the standings finish outside the top 30. The drivers who sat fourth and fifth in points finished 1-2, thus giving NASCAR and NBC the chase they wanted for the championship.

Jimmie Johnson’s seventh win of the season couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only did he position himself in second, just 59 points behind Kurt Busch, but gave an emotional lift to the Hendrick Motor Sports team that experienced tragedy with the loss of 10 loved ones in an airplane crash last week.

Mark Martin, who had tested well in Atlanta, finished second after dominating much of the day. His reward for such a great day was moving up a slot in points and shaving off 143 points the leader had on him last week.

With three races to go until a champion is crowned, the competition is wide open. The next race is this weekend at Phoenix on the one mile flat track in the middle of the Sonoran desert with relatively no banking.

The mindset of drivers has to be extremely varied at this point, with Busch feeling most of the heat. His 96-point lead over second place has been wiped out. Now there are four drivers within 98. Busch has had great runs in his last two Phoenix races, but never with this type pressure.

Last season, Busch led the most laps in this race but settled for fourth. Right now, he is like the Kansas City Chiefs of last year going into the playoffs with a dominant run. Johnson is like the Indianapolis Colts, who eventually knocked off the Chiefs at Arrowhead.

But just who represents the New England Patriots, the eventual champion? It could be Jeff Gordon, but he needs a great run this week to make it happen. Gordon’s best run ever at Phoenix is third in 11 career starts. He should fare well at Darlington and then Miami, but this week is a key.

Johnson finished second in only his second start at Phoenix last year. As good as Johnson has been during his first three years on tour, he’s not even close to being as dominating as Gordon was in the mid to late 90s. Yet, he has done better than Gordon.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won this race last year and finished fifth the year before. He had a chance to really take charge of the points championship last week, but got tapped out of the way by Carl Edwards with 10 laps remaining. Junior still finished 33rd and gained 27 points on Busch, but there are going to be a lot of what ifs pointed to the Atlanta race.

Tony Stewart is currently sixth in points, only 145 points behind. Stewart has always done well in Phoenix going back to his USAC and IRL days. He won his first Cup race in Phoenix, but finished a disappointing 18th last year. Stewart has been slightly better than average through this entire run, but remains in contention.

Ryan Newman is in seventh place, 186 points behind the leader. He had his best Phoenix run ever last season with a third place finish. Look for Newman to qualify well and be near the front all race.

Jeff Burton is a driver outside the chase, who could do well. Burton is the only driver other than the late Davey Allison to have multiple wins in Phoenix. Burton won back-to-back races in 2000 and 2001. In all, he has four top five finishes in 10 starts. All 10 of those races were in the Roush car that Edwards drives now. His current Childress ride has been pretty good for him since taking over.

Rusty Wallace last won at Phoenix in 1998 and has finished in the top four in two of the four races since that win. Wallace gets the most out of cars without the crutch of having banking and that is why he’s done so well at Phoenix over the years.