Kevin Harvick smoking in victory (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
It was a shocker. Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff, nearly picture perfect all season, stumbled badly in Sunday's Phoenix 500K and all but took themselves out of the NASCAR championship in the Sprint Cup tour's next to last race.
So Jimmie Johnson, with a third-place finish, goes to Homestead, Fla., this week with a nearly insurmountable points lead, 28 ahead of his closest rival, and 34 ahead of third-place Kevin Harvick, who pulled off the win when late-leader Carl Edwards ran out of gas with two miles to go.
"I saw him slowing with about maybe a lap and a half, two laps to go," Harvick said of Edwards. "Richard (Childress, his team owner) came across the radio and said he was slowing down. I'm like 'Dang! We might still be in this thing.'"
And now Harvick and Childress have a long-shot at the championship.
"Anything can happen," Harvick says. "You have to be in it to win it, and we've done a good job of winning races in the chase. We will see what happens."
However Johnson needs only to finish 23rd or better in next Sunday's 400, even if Kenseth or Harvick wins and leads the most laps, to clinch his sixth NASCAR title.
It would take almost a miracle now for Kenseth or Harvick to snatch the title from Johnson.
Kenseth struggled through his worst race of the season, and at the most inopportune moment. He never led a lap, and he finished 23rd, a lap down. And teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, who have excellent records here, were also far off their game; Busch managed to finish seventh, but Hamlin, who had finished first, second and third here in his last three starts, struggled in 28th.
It was a stunningly bad day for all three Joe Gibbs teams. "Nothing went right for us with Denny or with Matt," Gibbs said. "But Matt and these guys went at it hard...and now we've got to find a way to hang on to second....and see if there might be a miracle at Homestead."
Did the Gibbs guys simply play it too overconfident here, considering their usually excellent performance. Should at least one of the Gibbs teams tested here?
"No, we didn't overlook this track," Gibbs said. "We had to make a choice where to test this year. We tested in Dallas, we tested in Homestead, and we tested at Indy, because that's a big deal.
"We just had a tough weekend all the way around."
Jimmie Johnson's sixth NASCAR championship is oh-so close now, just seven days away (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"It seemed like we were all off this week," Kenseth said. "We haven't had a day like this all year. We were okay in practice, but I can't say I was overconfident. Our first run was reasonable; we were sixth to ninth. But once we got off, we really got off, lost track position.
"Yes, of course I'm disappointed. But this has been the best season of my racing career. And you can't just pick one race; all 10 pay the same points.
"We were off all day and never could get it right.
"But I'm proud of these guys. There's not a car out here I'd rather be driving than this one."
Johnson, who wasn't on his A-game either, despite starting from the pole at record speed, had to dodge two near disasters.
"Yes, surprised," Johnson said of Kenseth's stumble.
"I thought in the final practice they made a nice run, and I thought they got where they needed to be. But clearly today that wasn't the case.
"And in the race I never really saw Kyle Busch, which was another indication to me that Matt was having a bad day.
"I sympathize with Matt. We were in the same position last year; still went to Homestead with a shot to win the championship, but took ourselves out of it there.
"Everyone is so eager to predict the champion...but you've got to play the game."
With such a cushion now Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have the luxury of going to Homestead able to play for the win and not just for a championship finish.
"I'd love to win the race and win the championship, but we'll have to see how it shapes up," Johnson said.
"This race was challenging," Johnson said in understatement. "Everybody says it's a short event here, but, man, it seemed like it took 600 miles' worth of time to get through this race.
"We had a very strong car, so that made life a lot easier, especially compared to last year's.
"We did what we should have. Saturday we had a race‑winning car, and today seemed to be like a second‑ to third‑place car.
"But we're heading into Homestead in the position we want to be in.
"It's far from over. You've got to finish that race. Although we have a nice cushion, we still have to go down there and take care of business."
The day nearly started in disaster for Johnson, when he tangled Joey Logano the first lap. And later in the three-hour race Johnson dodged another bullet, when Edwards and Harvick made it three-wide into the corner, and Johnson was again sideways saving it.
"The one with Joey didn't worry me too much," Johnson said. "But the one with Carl, I was pointed toward the fence and didn't know if I could save it.
"The contact we had was unfortunate. There are really not three lanes, and I was coming around the outside of Carl, and I guess Kevin had a run on the inside, and once we all went to the brakes we were all committed to three wide."
Edwards came up just shy on fuel and coasted in 26th: "We played the strategy very well. We just needed a little more fuel. We miscalculated. I thought we were a lap to the good. I was saving just a little bit of fuel, but obviously not enough.
"I did not think we were that close. Kevin was catching me a bit too much and I thought I'd better just keep going. In hindsight I definitely should have tried to save more."
Matt Kenseth, his worst day of the season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)