Sunday, April 22, 2018
Sports

Phoenix tricky for Cup contenders

NASCAR would be thrilled if the Chase for the Championship went down to the final race, Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Raceway, with Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth locked in a taut battle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. lurking on the fringe.

"It's going to be the best points race," said Rick Hendrick, whose powerful four-car operation includes Johnson, the points leader, and Earnhardt, Sprint Cup's most popular driver. "If they don't have any trouble, it's going to come down to Homestead."

One qualm: Someone is likely to have Chase-changing trouble.

Before going to Homestead, the Chase hits Phoenix International Raceway today. The best-laid plans of Chase contenders can be trashed at one of the trickiest tracks on the circuit.

The track was reconfigured and resurfaced after the spring race in 2011. Since then, racing on the one-mile layout has been challenging to say the least.

In four Cup races at the reworked PIR, there have been 19 wrecks and six other cautions caused by spins.

"The new configuration is a little bit slicker," said Kurt Busch, who is 10th in points. "If you hit it exactly right, you can be quick there. But if you're off, it makes it treacherous and tough to pass when the track heats up."

The challenges of PIR make this a wild-card race because mishaps play no favorites. Johnson and Kenseth as well as non-contenders are likely to be swept up in a crash or lose track position because of a caution.

Each has wrecked once on the new track: Kenseth in 2011; Johnson in the fall race last year. Johnson finished 32nd because of the crash, triggered by a flat tire, and he could not recover in the finale. He led Brad Keselowski by seven points going into Phoenix but wound up third as Keselowski won the title.

Though he's on the pole for today's Advocare 500, Johnson lost a favorite course when PIR changed. In 16 starts on the old layout, he had four victories and 11 top-five finishes.

"There's definitely less confidence in the track that we're racing on now," Johnson said. "We won so many races with the old configuration and that old asphalt. If there was one guy sad to see that old configuration and asphalt go away, that was me."

In the spring race, Johnson showed signs of regaining that mastery by finishing second to Carl Edwards.

"Part of our sport is dealing with change," Johnson said. "We always have cars changing and surfaces changing. I feel like we're going in the right direction with that racetrack. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that this weekend."

Hendrick said Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, are "fired up" about taking another shot at PIR. The track beat the No. 48 Chevrolet last season.

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