Jimmie Johnson's 106-point lead over Carl Edwards is the largest margin by far between the leader and second-place driver with two races to go since the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format was introduced in 2004.
So why does it seem Johnson, the two-time defending champion, is vulnerable after a 15th place finish last week at Texas, his worst finish in a Chase race since October 2006?
“There's been a race the whole time,” Johnson said. “You just never know what's going to happen.”
What has happened is Edwards' winning consecutive races since Johnson won at Martinsville to build a 149-point lead over Greg Biffle. Edwards finished third and was fourth in the points standings, 198 back.
Johnson finished second to Edwards the next week at Atlanta, giving up 15 points, as Edwards moved into second place. But Johnson's lead was a hefty 183 points, the largest at any time in the five-year history of the Chase. Still, Johnson never bought into talk that the Chase was over. Then came Texas, where Edwards shaved another 77 points off Johnson's lead.
“Even at 183 points over Carl, I wasn't comfortable,” said Johnson, before alluding to 161 points, the most one driver can gain on another in one race. “If I stuffed it in the fence the first run (at Phoenix), I finish 43rd, they're right there. It's a race of 20 or 30 points at that point.”
Its unlikely Johnson will stuff the #48 Chevrolet in the fence in Sunday's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. He has won the past two races at Phoenix and has an average finish of 6.0 in ten starts.
Although Edwards is winless at Phoenix, he led 87 laps a year ago before engine problems knocked him out early. He finished fourth in the spring.
“My goal is to outrun those guys,” Johnson said. “My goal's to win the race, try to lead the most laps, gain points on those guys so that we go to Homestead with as many points as we can. That's truthfully the goal. I hope it works that way. No telling it will. But that's what we're working on.”
Denny Hamlin, who is twelfth in the standings, doesn't see Johnson giving up the lead.
“Nothing's impossible by any means,” he said. “I mean, anyone can think right now that, hey, anything can happen, get caught in a wreck, have something go wrong. But it just doesn't happen that often to the #48. I mean, if you were talking about another team, maybe the door would be a little bit more open than what it is right now.
“I think solely based off of performance, the #48's going to be fine. If he doesn't have a problem, it's definitely going to be his championship and everyone else is just going to be chasing him.”
By Charles Krall/Sporting News