By Jordan Dodson and Sharon Burton
Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Speedway looked to be an exciting race as the championship battle had come down to seven points. The championship contenders were neck and neck all day, until the unthinkable happened.
Once the green flag dropped Sunday, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson ran within a few positions of each other the entire day. Keselowski had the better car and held the upper hand throughout the day, running all the way into the top-five as Johnson worked himself into the top ten.
Everything changed on lap 78.
On lap 78, Johnson was riding along in the top-ten until the right front tire blew in turn four and his car smacked the wall. The contact put Johnson behind the wall to repair damage and the whole Hendrick Motorsports organization went to work on repairs. Johnson eventually came back on track, 38 laps down, with approximately 40 laps to go.
Johnson wrecking, period, is a rare sight – but a wreck involving the No. 48 car in the Chase is hard to fathom – but it happened. Johnson now sits 20 points behind Keselowski in the point standings after finishing 32nd Sunday.
Johnson on his championship hopes, “Way out of our control.”
Brad Keselowski did not have an easy day either. With two laps to go, Jeff Gordon intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer in front of Keselowski. Keselowski was able to sneak past the scuffle. Then, he had to sneak through another wreck, coming off the last corner of the race, due to an oil spill from Danica Patrick. Keselowski did get contact from the No. 78, but was able to keep the car straight and finish sixth.
With a Chase average finish of 6.6, Keselowski, has performed consistently throughout the Chase, compared to Johnson’s Chase average finish, now at 9.2, with his misfortunes at Phoenix.
Keselowski needs to go into Homestead, think smart, and keep his focus. With a solid finish in the top-15 – even if Jimmie Johnson wins and leads the most laps – Keselowski will get his first Sprint Cup championship.
That may not be as easy as it sounds. Think about Martin Truex Jr‘s engine expiring at the beginning of the AdvoCare 500 in Phoenix, Denny Hamlin‘s bolt breaking on his electrical switch at Texas – or five-time champion, Jimmie Johnson blowing his right front tire and his chance for a good finish in the the next-to-last race of the Chase.
No one knows, at this point, what will happen as the Sprint Cup teams head into Homestead-Miami this weekend, and fans have learned to expect the unexpected in the Chase. But one thing is certain – at the end of the day on Sunday, November 18th, everyone will know who the 2012 Sprint Cup champion will be as they hoist their trophy above their head and celebrate with their championship team.