Jimmie or Jeff. Jeff or Jimmie. That’s what the NASCAR Nextel Cup season has boiled down to: two drivers, two races and one championship, starting with today’s Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway and winding up next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson leads the Chase for the championship by 30 points over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.
Six of the 12 drivers in the Chase are mathematically eliminated from winning the championship. Four others (third-place Clint Bowyer, who is 181 points back, is a super long shot at best) don’t have a snowball’s chance in Arizona to win it.
So that leaves Jimmie and Jeff.
Who will win the championship, Jimmie or Jeff? Everybody in the PIR garages and track infield has got an opinion.
“I would probably say Jeff,” Phoenix native and Joe Gibbs Racing driver J.J. Yeley said. “He got a longer and better track record than Jimmie here. Their equipment, obviously it’s identical, so it’s going to come down to the guy who has the best luck. Jeff’s going to have to do everything he can here because Jimmie probably has a little bit of an edge going into Homestead.”
Gordon does own the edge of winning at PIR in April and he‘s won three poles here. Johnson’s best finish in the No. 48 Chevrolet is second (in 2003 and the 2006 fall race).
Dodge driver Kasey Kahne, who missed the Chase, will take the momentum play. “The way the things are going right now for the 48, it’s going to be tough for him to lose it,” he said.
Johnson has won the past three Nextel Cup races (Martinsville, Atlanta and Texas) to turn Gordon’s 68-point lead into a 30-point deficit.
Matt Kenseth was on the short end of Johnson‘s latest win last Sunday in the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. He tried to fend off Johnson over the closing laps, but in the end Johnson’s fresher tires won out.
“I think, really, Jimmie is in the best position,” Kenseth said. “As far as performance, I think that team performs just a little bit better all the time than everybody in the garage. Jeff has been there many times and he doesn’t make any mistakes, so I think it’s a pretty good matchup right now.”
The experience factor does favor Gordon, who owns four Cup championships. But Johnson is the defending Nextel Cup champion and winner of 10 of the 38 Chase races since NASCAR began its playoff system four years ago.
Pole sitter Carl Edwards, who sits fifth in the Chase points, is sticking with the hot hand.
“If I had to pick a guy, I’d say Jimmie just because they’ve been winning races,” Edwards said. “I have a feeling they’re both running so well and Jeff is such a savvy competitor that it’s gonna come down to who has a little bit of bad luck.”
So you’re wavering a bit, Carl? “(Johnson) is definitely the class of the field right now,” he said.
Even Brian France, NASCAR’s chairman and CEO, is weighing in on the Chase’s two-driver, two-race finals. “I think Jeff’s going to run better here, and I think it could be very, very close going into Homestead,” France told the Associated Press.
Gordon also believes he’s got the edge over Johnson in today’s Checker Auto Parts 500. And because Johnson runs stronger than Gordon at Homestead-Miami, Gordon says he may need to wipe out that 30-point deficit today.
“We’ve got to step it up,” Gordon said. “There’s no hiding that and I hope we can pull that off right here in Phoenix.”
And that’s not an unrealistic task. This season Gordon has outpointed Johnson by more than 30 points in 15 different races.
But Johnson has taken care of business by hunting down Gordon the past three weeks, his wins erasing Gordon’s 68-point lead.
While he’s been better as the hunter, with just two races left it’s the best time for him to be the hunted, Johnson said. “At this stage of the game you want to be leading. With the few races that we have left, I think it’s better to be on top and trying to control it if at all possible.“
But Johnson still wonders if his run of victories as well as his run of good luck is about to run out. Is bad luck just around the first turn today at PIR?
“Those nagging thoughts motivate me,” Johnson said. “I can tell you, (Friday) before practice started, I climbed into the car wondering if I was going to remember how to drive Phoenix again and if the No. 24 (Gordon) was just going to dominate practice and qualifying and I was going to be lost and not know my way around. And I look at that doubt and fear and I use it as motivation.”
The battle is Jimmie vs. Jeff, but there will be 41 other cars racing.
Drivers say they will give the two championship contenders plenty of room to race, but don’t expect them to cut them much slack.
“You can bet I’ll race them just as hard as I can,” said Edwards, who is all but mathematically eliminated from title contention.
And there’s Bowyer, who has faint hopes of catching the two Hendrick drivers and spoiling the Jimmie and Jeff Show.
“We got to try to win these last two races and hope for a mistake on (Johnson and Gordon’s) part,” Bowyer said. “That’s all we can do championship wise.”