Jimmie Johnson could take a big step forward in winning his sixth Sprint Cup Series title this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.
Johnson enters the penultimate race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with a seven-point lead over Brad Keselowski. Third-place Clint Bowyer is a distant 36 points behind.
Just two drivers in the Chase -- Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- have been mathematically eliminated from championship contention. Any driver who is 49 points or more behind the leader after Phoenix will be out of the title hunt.
It is possible but very unlikely that Johnson could clinch the Sprint Cup title at Phoenix. Johnson must out-point Keselowski by 41 if he wins the race and 42 if he doesn't win. He must also net an additional 12 points on Bowyer.
Johnson has won the last two races -- Martinsville and Texas. He won the pole position and led the most laps in each of those events as well. If Johnson led the most laps and won at Phoenix, he would clinch the title if Keselowski finished 37th or worse and Bowyer eighth or worse, with neither challenger scoring a bonus point for leading a lap. Keselowski's worst finish this season is 36th, which came in April at Texas.
After winning Martinsville, Johnson reclaimed the lead in the Chase standings, as he held only a two-point advantage over Keselowski. Johnson added five more points to his lead after a hard-fought battle with Keselowski at Texas.
"There is not going to be any breathing easy until the end," Johnson said. "I was two points, and now we've got seven. But there is a lot of racing left."
Johnson holds the record for most wins at Phoenix with four, including three in the Chase. His most recent victory there came in Nov. 2009, a race which he led 238 of 312 laps. Johnson also holds the record for most laps led at this one-mile oval with 931. He has an average finish of 5.3 in his 18 races there.
When the series most recently competed at Phoenix in March, Keselowski scored his first top-10 finish there with a fifth-place run. Keselowski's average finish in six races at this track is 22.17. He's led just a total of seven laps there -- four in last year's fall race and three in this year's spring event.
"I look at Phoenix, and I think we had a great run in the spring, finishing fifth," Keselowski said. "I felt like that was when we weren't even quite as strong as we are now as a team. Now that we're stronger, I feel like it's realistic for us to go to the next two races and win, and that's what we're going to try and do. That's the goal I have."
In each of the last two years, the driver ranked second in Chase points entering the second-to-last race overtook the leader in the season-finale at Homestead. In 2010, Johnson trailed Denny Hamlin in points heading into Phoenix but went on to win his record-extending fifth consecutive series championship. Tony Stewart caught Carl Edwards during the last two races in last year's Chase, beating Edwards for the title in a points tiebreaker.
"I'd say it's a heads-up match going into Phoenix and probably the same going into Homestead," Keselowski said after his second-place finish last Sunday at Texas. "We just have to win the heads-up matches."
Sunday's race will be the third time the series runs at this track since it was repaved and reconfigured in mid-2011. When the series competed at Phoenix one year ago, there were a lot of unknowns heading into the event. Since then, drivers have become quite familiar with the track's new surface.
"The track has had some time to age, and I hope it's lost some grip, so we will definitely move out," Johnson said. "They spent a lot of time and effort to try to create extra lanes of racing through their modeling. I hope they're right. The first time there, it was pretty narrow, and I hope that, as it ages, we can get a wider racetrack and really put on a good show."
Kasey Kahne won at Phoenix one year ago, and Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag there earlier this year.
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the AdvoCare 500. Danica Patrick is scheduled to make her 10th and final Sprint Cup start of the season at Phoenix.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Nov. 11. Race: AdvoCare 500. Site: Phoenix International Raceway. Track: one-mile oval. Start time: 3 p.m.(ET). Laps: 312. Miles: 312. 2011 Winner: Kasey Kahne. Television: ESPN. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.