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Martin Truex? Montoya's lame duck teammate provides a Friday surprise at Phoenix

  Martin Truex Jr. on the pole, and another wild card for NASCAR tour leader Jimmie Johnson to contend with (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Jimmie Johnson, trying to rebound from last Sunday's costly crash, put a little more heat on title rival Mark Martin in Friday qualifying for Sunday's Phoenix 500.
   But then just how much attention to pay to qualifying anyway – Jeff Gordon was on the pole at Texas but blew a great opportunity to get back in the title chase with a weak run in the race itself.
   Still, Phoenix International Raceway has been a graveyard for title contenders over the years, and races here are frequently filled with the unusual and unpredictable.
   Martin Truex Jr., in one of his final races with crew chief Bono Manion, won the pole…ironically edging Texas winner Kurt Busch, whose crew chief, Pat Tryson, will become Truex' crew chief next season when Truex moves from the Chip Ganassi Chevy camp to the Michael Waltrip Toyota operation. Truex is not in the title chase.
   Johnson, who will start third, spent all day doing his best to exude confidence, though a 73-point lead (over Mark Martin, who starts 10th here) isn't really that great a cushion, no matter how you spin it…..except that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are amazingly consistent and are rarely rattled – that repair job at Texas was so textbook perfect, and done in such military precision, as to demoralize any rivals watching Knaus and his crew in the repair bay. That only gained Johnson another 15 points….but much more psychologically.
   Martin knows his job.
   Gordon is the now the wild card. But then Gordon, well, did he 'choke' at Texas by not rising to the occasion and scoring more points?
   Gordon himself says he's got no time to waste now: "When you're behind in points and the races are narrowing down, you get more and more aggressive.  You know you've got to go out there and gain points. 
    "You've got to get good track position.  You've got to really try to capitalize every moment you're out there on the track to try to get the most out of it.
      "But I mean honestly I don't know how we can do things any different than we do all year long.  We really work hard at every race to be as aggressive as we can to put ourselves in a position to win the race. 
      "So the difference is when I say aggressive, it's maybe in the pit strategy…it might be taking a little more risk on fuel mileage…it might be thinking a little more outside-the-box."
      But even though he's just 112 points down – say, the difference between winning and finishing 29th – and even though Johnson lost 111 points at Texas alone, the sense is that Gordon is out of the title chase, barring something unusual.
     "What Jimmie and Chad (Knaus, his crew chief) and that team have done over the last four years has been phenomenal," Gordon admits. "It's something to be respected and appreciated.  
   "We know what we're up against -- and that we've been getting beat by them."
   Gordon says Martin has a decent shot at catching Johnson. But Gordon concedes he himself faces a much tough row to hoe: "Jimmie and Chad don't give those points up easily.  But 80 over two races is do-able; 112, not necessarily --- without them having trouble.  
    "Mark making up 40-plus points per race is not completely out of the question. But those guys (Johnson and Knaus) run too good to just finish (back) there. It would have to come down to something like a fuel mileage race and they didn't have the fuel mileage, or a really bad pit stop, or them actually having trouble." 
   That 'drive for five' – Gordon's bid for a fifth championship – has been going on for years now…since his last title, in 2001.
   "We've been doing the drive-for-five for so long that I'm tired of hearing about it," Gordon says. "But we're close this year. We've been very competitive and consistent.  Obviously we'd love to pull that off.
    "But I'm an 'actions-speak-louder-than-words' type of individual. And we've been chasing Jimmie and Chad for the last three -- now going on four – years, if not longer than that. They're the team to beat; Jimmie's the guy to beat.  
     "I accepted that a long time ago.
     "It just makes me work harder to try to get ourselves back up to that level I think we're capable of."



Phoenix has been a heartbreak

Phoenix has been a heartbreak for Mark so long in win losses (the fuel mileage gamble last year) and losing to Dale Earnhardt in '90 for the Winston Cup.

Wouldn't it be a nice payback for Mark to have the points lead heading into Homestead?

Cale Yarborough would be happy, trust me!....lol

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