- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Jimmie Johnson has never won at Phoenix International Raceway, so it's almost tempting to overlook the points leader heading into the Checker Auto Parts 500 on Sunday.
"I like this track because it fits my driving style. I grew up running short and flat tracks and it's still where I am the most comfortable. It comes down to car control and these are the kind of tracks where I feel I am at my best, and I think the racing is really exciting."
-- Denny Hamlin
In six starts at Phoenix, Johnson's average finish of 8.7 ranks tops among the drivers in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. He's only led two of those races, so a little extra something might not be a bad idea this weekend, but he's still in a good spot.
Johnson leads Kenseth by 17 points, with Earnhardt Jr. 78 back. Rookie Denny Hamlin is 80 points behind with Harvick -- who won the Busch and Cup races here in April -- sitting 105 out.
California native Johnson is looking forward to visiting the desert.
"It's always been a good track for me," Johnson said. "Our short-track program and mile program have been getting stronger and stronger, so I carry a lot of confidence going in. And it's close to home. So I get excited for going back."
The track presents a few different challenges, but Johnson likes the track's layout.
"In the race, Turns 3 and 4 at times have second lanes. Turns 1 and 2 definitely have outside lanes so you can work on someone and try passing him," Johnson said. "I would love another lane or two at that racetrack. If there was progressive banking in 3 and 4, it would really help that. But I still think for a mile racetrack it puts on a great race.
"It's more competitive than what we have at Loudon, and I'm excited to go out there. I think we'll perform well. Every racetrack has its own area that you've got to focus on, so I still end up giving 100 percent if it's Darlington or Martinsville or Talladega or Phoenix -- they're all different disciplines, but you've really got to focus hard on the right things."
With wins at Phoenix in 2003 and '04, Earnhardt feels good about his chances. And he knows he needs to close the gap a bit heading into the finale at Homestead.
"We need to be in reasonable striking distance going into Homestead, so gaining a spot in the standings was pretty important," Earnhardt said about his sixth-place finish at Texas. "I'm really glad we're close. That's what you shoot for. We've got some hard, tough teams to beat, but I think we're putting up a great fight.
"I don't think anybody anticipated this team running as strong every week. We all agreed on a few tracks we'd run good at, but I don't think anybody anticipated running great every week. I'm proud of my team, and we've never worked better as a whole as we have this season."
Hamlin shocked many by winning the pole in Phoenix last November and ran well before a problem in the pits left him 13th. He dropped a cylinder at the start of the race here in April and needs better luck this time around.
"I like this track because it fits my driving style. I grew up running short and flat tracks and it's still where I am the most comfortable," Hamlin said. "It comes down to car control and these are the kind of tracks where I feel I am at my best, and I think the racing is really exciting."
Although he needs a little luck, Hamlin's not writing off his hopes just yet.
"As this Chase has proven, anything can happen, and we don't feel like we are out of it," Hamlin said. "With as well as some of the other teams are running right now, we'll have to put together a complete race at Phoenix to keep pace and hopefully have a chance by the time we get to Homestead."
Harvick, the last driver with a realistic shot at challenging Johnson, got the job done in April and a repeat performance would be a big boost.
"I am really looking forward to Phoenix. I feel very good about our chances Sunday and it's nice to be heading there coming off a third-place finish last weekend," Harvick said. "Obviously, when you go back to a track where you have won at previous, you definitely go there with added confidence. We are not taking the same car we won in, but we are taking the same car from our win at New Hampshire."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.
Phoenix is one of the trickiest tracks on the Nextel Cup circuit, and that means a crucial Chase victory could fall to nearly anyone, writes Mark Ashenfelter.