AP Photo/LM Otero
Start Your Engines
It's never too early to talk about Chase contenders. Jeff Burton is 12th and on the bubble, flanked by surprising contenders David Reutimann and Juan Pablo Montoya. Immediately behind them, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have work to do to get into the Chase picture.
That's nice. Kind of like a month ago when college basketball fans debated which teams would be the last ones in the NCAA Tournament field. Who's in the show, and who's not.
Seven races in, no one else matters. Yes, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth have won races, and Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart have been steady, and exactly none of them is in the class of the No. 24 and 48 so far.
The Hendrick Motorsports Chevys are 1-2 in points, winners of the last two races including a 1-2 finish at Texas, and, lest one forgets, owners of seven of the last 14 championships. Johnson has three running; Gordon is looking for No. 5.
Don't expect the title march to get off track Saturday night at Phoenix.
Gordon and Johnson have combined to win the last four events at the quirky mile oval (again, Johnson has a streak of three), with extracurricular stats that are mind-blowing.
Johnson has never finished out of the top 15 in 11 races at Phoenix International Raceway, completing all 3,436 laps run over that time with an average finish of 5.5. Gordon, though with only one win, has three poles, eight top-5s and an average finish of 7.0 if his first and most recent races (his only two DNF's in 20 starts) are tossed out. It's pretty remarkable stuff, the kind that either leaves you speechless or strategically silent.
"There's not really anything I can put my finger on. I know that's a popular question, wanting to know why a driver does well at a certain track. I think something just clicks with certain drivers at certain places," said Johnson, who's five top-10s this season are second only to Gordon's six. "We've just been able to get the car comfortable for me and I've just been able to get around the track."
Johnson's not about to give up his setup at PIR, which has a lot of secrets built into its small size. Turns 1 and 2 are tighter and two degrees flatter than Turns 3 and 4, and the front and back straights are 3 and 9 degrees, respectively. The backstretch also has a dogleg, making the place a tri-oval in NASCAR nomenclature.
"You put whatever kind of car you want to put on Phoenix, you're going to have a good race," said Burton, of Richard Childress Racing. "Two different corners and entrances means one car is going to be good in this corner, the next one in that corner. That means they're going to have a lot of cars that are competitive."
Once someone figures it out, the wins pile up at Phoenix. Burton went back-to-back in 2000-01, as did Earnhardt in 2003-04, Harvick in both 2006 races and now Johnson in the last three stops.
"There are plenty of tricks to that place that you need to know to be successful," said Kyle Busch, a winner in the 2005 fall race.
Knowing the tricks and knowing how to use them to beat both Johnson and Gordon might be two different things.
Jeff Gordon: The No. 24 gang jokes around the shop about the value of wins. Coming in first at Martinsville, Va., where Gordon has won seven times, doesn't really count. It's like a half-win. Same thing for the road courses, which Gordon owns. But what about a win at Texas Motor Speedway, one of two tracks left on the Cup schedule where he hadn't won?
"These are double points," the four-time champion said.
Looking at his 162-point lead after seven races, one almost wonders if that's really the case. No, he's just been that good -- though lacking a win. Now that question is old news, Steve Letarte looks smarter and the rest of the team's confidence is sky-high after taking home the hardware at the Samsung 500.
We know Gordon's going to make the Chase, the only question is whether winning the season finale at Homestead-Miami -- the only other track left to be conquered in his career -- will cap off another kind of "double."
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
You Gotta See This
Matt Kenseth: We were intrigued by the No. 17's prospects after blowing an engine six laps in at Las Vegas -- this was going to be the first driver in the history of motorsports to finish first or last in every race. Hey, he had three races down and only 33 to go.
It didn't turn out that way, but some recent efforts certainly skewed more toward the rear of the field than Victory Lane. That's why a fifth-place day at Texas, even with a botched pit stop at the end, was such a welcome sight.
"This was a great day," the Roush Fenway Racing driver said after climbing from 12th to ninth in points. "We have struggled since California, so to come here and get a top-5 and gain a little momentum -- that is really what we needed to do."
Off The Pace
Robby Gordon: Consecutive early exits with blown engines don't sound very Toyota-like, but that was the fate at Texas and Martinsville for Robby. Unfortunately in the races where he has been around for the end, there hasn't been much to see -- one lead-lap finish, a 15th at Las Vegas.
Before the engine problems the No. 7 was at least safely in the field, now he's 34th in owner's points and needing a solid night at Phoenix to avoid making things really stressful by having to qualify for races on speed down the road. As if they're not already for an owner-driver in this economy.
Inside The Numbers
12th -- Burton's current position
2nd -- Kevin Harvick's points rank one year ago
14th -- Harvick's current position
80 -- Consecutive races without a DNF for Clint Bowyer
24 -- 1-2 race finishes for Hendrick Motorsports
0 -- Dodge wins at Phoenix