CUP: Contenders Set To Go Flat Out In Arizona

Article by Article by Jeff Hood,,

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who will win this NASCAR Chase free-for-all?

Denny Hamlin, who has overcome early season knee surgery to collar a series-high eight wins and the lead in the standings entering the final two stops on the schedule beginning with Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500k at Phoenix International Raceway?

Jimmie Johnson, the reigning four-time champion who trails Hamlin by 33 points?

Kevin Harvick, who led nearly the entire regular season but has dropped to No. 3 in the standings, 59 points behind Hamlin?

Only time will tell, but the clock clearly is ticking for pursuers Johnson and Harvick, who are hoping to do what no one has ever done in the six-year history of the Chase, which is overtake the series leader with only two remaining races.

“For us, we’re going to be 100 percent offense all the way,” Harvick said Monday. “We’re going to push every piece on the car, go out and take it. That’s the best way I can tell you what we’re going to do. To win (the title), we have to take everything there that’s for the taking. That’s the best way to control your own destiny.”

Even with two wins at PIR, both coming during the 2006 season, Harvick’s overall mark over the oddly-shaped 1-mile oval is no match against Johnson.

Hendrick Motorsports machinery has won six of the past seven races at PIR (Ryan Newman ended the streak in the April race, but won driving with a Hendrick chassis and engine) and Johnson’s contribution is four trips into victory lane over the past six races.

Johnson never has finished worse than 15th in a Cup race at PIR and also has eight straight top-five finishes dating to the November 2006 race. His average finish in 14 career starts is 4.9.

Harvick averages a 15th-place finish in 15 career starts at PIR and Hamlin, still searching for his first win at the track, averages an 11.5 finish.

Johnson also has led 857 laps, second only to Rusty Wallace’s 868, and Harvick has led 316. Hamlin has led 93 laps.

But Hamlin and Harvick also are talented flat-track drivers and it hardly gets any flatter than at PIR, where the steepest banking is only 11 degrees.

What makes PIR challenging, however, is its two sets of corners.

Turns 1-2 are nowhere near the same as Turns 3-4, oftentimes causing crew chiefs to scratch their heads coming up with a setup that produces equally good results at both ends of the track.

“Certain tracks just fit teams and drivers,” Johnson said. “Phoenix has been one of those places for us. Homestead (Fla.) hasn’t been one of those places for us and we really have to work at it when we’re there.

“We feel different about Phoenix. We can run up front there without having to work as hard because we always seem to bring good setups to that track.”

Unlike Johnson, Hamlin has performed somewhat like a roller-coaster at PIR – up one race, down the next. Lately, however, Hamlin has been delivering better and better finishes.

Aside from April’s 30th-place finish only a few days after undergoing knee surgery, Hamlin had four straight top-six finishes.

“For me, Phoenix is a track where braking is extremely important,” Hamlin said. “Just like Martinsville into Turn 1. You’ve got to have a car that rolls the center there extremely good, especially in Turn 1 because it’s much tighter than it is in Turn 3.”

Harvick agrees.

“Handling is going to a real key in this race more so than (the April day/night race) because it’s going to be run all in the day,” Harvick said. “You’ve got to find that balance. You have to be able to turn in the center of both corners and have good forward bite. You have to be good on both ends.

“It’s not impossible to find a good, happy medium where you’re good at both ends.”

Where Harvick, Johnson and Hamlin all hope to be ultimately good at is the finish line.

“I think this could go any way,” Harvick said. “All three of us have shown strengths throughout the season. But now it’s come down to whoever can do it at the right time at the end.”