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Five things in NASCAR Sprint Cup that are out of contenders' hands

Jimmie Johnson pits using Jeff Gordon’s crew in last week’s race at Texas. The crews swapped places for good this week.

Associated Press

Jimmie Johnson pits using Jeff Gordon’s crew in last week’s race at Texas. The crews swapped places for good this week.

AVONDALE, Ariz. — The phrase has become common in discussions of this year's Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship: "Anything can happen."

Through the Chase's first eight races, anything has.

We've seen the teams of two of the three drivers (Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson) still in the hunt for the championship swap out their respective pit crews with a teammate's.

We've seen Chase contenders — Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton — get into a physical altercation on the track. It didn't produce any NASCAR penalties, but it sure provided plenty of excitement.

And we've seen how a Chase driver, Kyle Busch, can see his day go terribly wrong after he waged an unsuccessful battle against NASCAR officials.

Johnson, Harvick and Denny Hamlin have what it takes to win a title entering today's Kobalt Tools 400 at Phoenix International Raceway.

But what about the things they can't control?

There are plenty of ways the title outcome could be taken out of the hands of Hamlin, Johnson or Harvick. Here are five:

• 1. "Boys, have at it."

NASCAR's edict to allow its drivers to police themselves hasn't had a large affect in the Chase, but there's still potential.

David Reutimann, who did not make the Chase, wrecked Kyle Busch out of the race at Kansas after the two tangled earlier. Reutimann, of Zephyrhills, also was the driver who wrecked Johnson on Lap 3 of last fall's race at Texas, which dramatically cut Johnson's points lead.

• 2. Better teammates

Johnson, Harvick and Hamlin have strong teammates, and the bottom line is the more teammates run in front of them, the fewer points they collect.

Case in point: After a NASCAR video replay, it was determined Clint Bowyer won at Talladega, Ala., last month, with his Richard Childress teammate Harvick second. That cost Harvick 15 points.

• 3. Pit road

We've seen the past week how important good pit stops are to a contender.

Harvick and Johnson's teams now are using over-the-wall pit crews from other teams in their organization. Both had faster stops after making the change.

If either team struggles again, will Johnson and Harvick's teams be willing to change again?

• 4. Trash talking

Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, isn't exactly a household name, but he unleashed some serious trash-talking after last week's win at Texas. There's the chance, of course, it could all backfire. After all, a 33-point lead isn't imposing.

As Harvick said Friday, "The only good thing that comes from being cocky like that is you better win because if you don't, you're going to have to answer a lot of questions about your comments when you get done."

• 5. Someone who starts but forgets to park

It sounds ridiculous, but it has happened several times: A team intent on just making the race and not going the distance puts all its effort into qualifying and earns a good starting spot. Then the driver nearly wrecks trying to get out of everyone's way in moving to the back of the pack or onto pit road and to the garage (think Dave Blaney at Bristol).

Scouting report

Phoenix International Raceway

The tricky 1-mile oval has been a boon for Jimmie Johnson (four wins) and Kevin Harvick (two), who will have to emerge from the middle of the pack in today's race. Johnson starts 21st, Harvick lines up 29th. Johnson holds track records for most victories and best average finish (4.9) and is second in laps led (857, just 11 behind Rusty Wallace). Points leader Denny Hamlin has a slightly better vantage point, starting 17th. Hamlin never has won at Phoenix but has run well, scoring five top-five finishes in 10 events including four third-place results.

Times staff

Sprint Cup points

With two races to go. Only the top nine drivers are still mathematically eligible in the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Points Back

Denny Hamlin 6,325—

Jimmie Johnson 6,292 33

Kevin Harvick 6,266 59

Carl Edwards 6,008 317

Matt Kenseth 6,000 325

Jeff Gordon 5,994 331

Kyle Busch 5,986 339

Tony Stewart 5,962 363

Greg Biffle 5,953 372

Clint Bowyer 5,928 397

Kurt Busch 5,890 435

Jeff Burton 5,852 473

Today's race

Kobalt Tools 500, 3 p.m., Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale, Ariz. TV: ESPN

Five things in NASCAR Sprint Cup that are out of contenders' hands 11/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 13, 2010 7:48pm]
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