Mathematically, three drivers are still in the running for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship after Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway, including this week's race winner Kevin Harvick. But in reality there's one name above all others with one race remaining in the current season, and the engraver can surely start etching the name of Jimmie Johnson on what will prove to be his sixth Sprint Cup trophy, and that's because Matt Kenseth had a shocker of a day at Phoenix.
“I knew I had a great race car and that makes life a lot easier," said Johnson after finishing in third place in Phoenix. "I really had to fall back on my dirt driving skills racing out here in the desert all the years that I did.
"The #20 wasn't having the best day," Johnson conceded. "I knew I was in good shape relative to the championship battle; knew I had a good car, knew I could get through traffic, and I knew it was just about getting points on him."
Not that it was all plain sailing for Johnson either, however, even though he had certainly started the AdvoCare 500 with the upper-hand having secured his third pole of the year in qualifying late on Friday afternoon, while Kenseth found himself pushed down to 14th place for the start partly as a consequence of his early qualifying draw. Unfortunately for Johnson, however, third-place man Joey Logano was feeling in a feisty move from the get-go and at the green flag the Penske driver tried a move down the inside that made it a three-wide battle for the lead. It ended up with the #48 receiving a tap that sent him flailing backwards through the pack as he tried to avoid wiping out altogether, with Denny Hamlin taking the opportunity to move into the early lead of the race.
"The opening lap was kind of crazy," admitted Johnson. "I am just glad nothing happened ... My car just went straight. I couldn't turn, so I ended up in like the second lane entering the corner. It got pretty nutty there."
The only car able to really go with Hamlin was Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jeff Gordon, who on lap 19 finally took over the lead of the race after half a dozen laps of fierce racing with the #11. That seemed to be the end of Hamlin's best form of the afternoon, and as Gordon took off at the front the #11 was also soon passed by Kevin Harvick, the recovering Johnson, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. It was soon clear that Hamlin was in serious trouble with the handling of his car and inevitably it ended with a spin in turn 2 on lap 51 after he had dropped to 23rd and been left running just ahead of Justin Allgaier. His spin triggered the first caution of the afternoon, and after a round of pit stops Kevin Harvick used the restart on lap 56 to fly past Gordon into the lead for the first time; meanwhile the pit stop had been a disaster for Earnhardt, who was forced to drop out of the top six to return to pit road with a suspected loose wheel that left him in 35th and a lap off the lead, now in need of a prompt caution and a shot at the free pass to restore his fortunes.
Harvick put in a storming run over the course of the next green flag stint, which left only Jimmie Johnson within five seconds of the #29 when the next caution came out on lap 101 after JJ Yeley and Joe Nemecheck shot up high and came close to hitting the wall in turns 3 and 4. The three leaders opted for four-tyre stops and were beaten off pit road by those who opted to change only two - Kasey Kahne took the lead for the restart on lap 106 ahead of Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Paul Menard. Although Menard fell back in the next dozen laps of running, the two-tyre gambit proved broadly successful with Kahne still in the lead on lap 117 when Timmy Hill spun into the wall in turn 1 to trigger the third caution of the afternoon.
There were few takers for a quick return to pit lane, but among them was an increasingly desperate Matt Kenseth who had been complaining about the #20's handling from the very start. The adjustments under the previous cautions had only made matters worse, and so a return to his pit stall to undo the damage was required even though it left him down in 28th place for the restart on lap 121, and there was a mounting sense of tension and even desperation in the Joe Gibbs Racing camp. It wasn't as if the team's other drivers were having any better time of it: Kyle Busch was seemingly mired in 12th, and Hamlin only got back on the lead lap with the free pass as a result of this latest caution. He would later lose it again after being slapped with a pit lane speeding penalty in the second half of the race.
At the green flag, Keselowski succeeded in getting around Kahne for the lead with Harvick also finally getting to make use of his full set of new tyres to move back into second place before Travis Kvapil and Dave Blaney got together on lap 132, dropping oil on the track in the process to trigger the next caution of the day. With a mixed approach to pitting this time - Kenseth stayed out, which meant he moved back up to 15th despite nonetheless still being saddled with an evil-handling car, as did Earnhardt who finally got the free pass back onto the lead lap - the top ten going to the green flag on lap 137 was Keselowski, Harvick, Kahne, Edwards, Johnson, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya.