The Backstretch Blog: Legend of the Phoenix

Published On: Dec 24 2013 02:26:59 PM CST   Updated On: Nov 08 2013 04:38:58 PM CST

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Call whichever track in the Chase you want a wild card, but if you look at recent history, it's hard to ignore the impact of Phoenix on the points race. In 2010 Denny Hamlin dominated, but had to stop for gas and finished 12, opening the door for Jimmie Johnson to win his fifth championship.  In 2011, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart finished second and third setting up an epic finish at Homestead. And last season, ah last season. Who knew Clint Bowyer could run that fast?

This year the battle seems to have come down between Johnson and Matt Kenseth. Both have had some success at Phoenix, but that was before the recent repave. Right now neither really knows what to expect this weekend.

"It's just a whole new race track," said Johnson. "We had a good run in the spring. Certainly hopeful that the direction that we took things in the spring was right and obviously we had a good run, but that we have built on that and can have a race winning car there now. The track was so good to us for so long that I hated to see it reconfigured and repaved, but we just have to get on top of things and get right over there."

Johnson is, at least on paper, in the driver's seat heading into the weekend. He has four Phoenix victories to Kenseth's one and a seven point lead in the  standings.

"I would feel better if we were leading," said Kenseth. "Obviously, everybody wants to be the leader, but I feel good about it.  I'm looking forward to this weekend.  We had a good run here in the spring -- it was my first race with the team, really besides plate racing.  We had a really competitive car and we've been good at these kind of tracks."

There are of course 41 other drivers out there also chasing the checkered flag and with very little to lose. And the field is packed with past winners including Kevin Harvick (3), Jeff Gordon (2), Jeff Burton (2), Dale Earnhardt Jr (2), Carl Edwards (2) Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne.