Phoenix Rear View Mirror


Jimmie Johnson will take a commanding 28-point lead into next weekend's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)


News, notes and observations from the weekend at Phoenix International Raceway:

Barring an alien abduction, next week’s Ford EcoBoost 400 will be a coronation ceremony for Jimmie Johnson.

The combo platter of Johnson’s usual solid day Sunday in Phoenix and Matt Kenseth’s fumble has taken a lot of the anticipation out of next week’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Johnson simply needs to finish 23rd or better in South Florida and he will celebrate Sprint Cup championship No. 6.

So much for Game 7 moments.

As has been the case in recent Chase scenarios, it wasn’t so much Johnson going out and winning the title as Kenseth spitting the bit.  A poor-handling racecar combined with less-than-stellar work on pit road added up to Kenseth having one of his worst days of the season.

Meanwhile, Johnson narrowly avoided a couple of on-track disasters and persevered to come home third in the penultimate race of the season to set up next week’s more-than-probable title celebration.

It was surprising to see Kenseth & Co. have as much trouble as they did on Sunday.  After a season that has seen the No. 20 car in Victory Lane seven times and Kenseth near the front of the standings most of the year, days like Sunday were few and far between.

It’s true that Johnson’s track record at Homestead is less than sterling and he is still winless in his Sprint Cup Series career at the 1.5-mile track.  But it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the "48" has a day as bad as Kenseth’s crew did in Phoenix, which is the only way Johnson won’t be hoisting the Cup next Sunday night.

The air has been let out of the championship balloon, but at least the weather forecast is fantastic.

- The strange season for Kevin Harvick somehow ended up with another trip to Victory Lane on Sunday.  Less than two weeks from the controversial blowup among Harvick, Ty Dillon and team owner Richard Childress at Martinsville, there was "R.C." congratulating the driver of the No. 29 on Sunday’s Phoenix win.  I’ll say this: there may be more awkwardness behind the scenes than any of us will ever know, but the way Harvick has performed under some extreme circumstances is more than admirable.

- The run to the finish of the season has been anything but impressive for Danica Patrick.  After her eighth-place Daytona 500 finish, she placed 12th at Martinsville the next month only to free-fall from that point forward.  Since her 14th-place effort in the Coke Zero 400 back on Fourth of July weekend, Patrick’s best finish is 17th at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago.  All the talk of how improvement would come when Patrick had a chance to hit tracks for a second time has not come to fruition and it appears some weeks, she’s actually regressed.  I’ve been one of Patrick’s staunchest supporters and still believe she’s good for the sport.  But the expiration date of not backing up the sizzle with some steak is fast approaching.

- The weekend was full of both official and unofficial talk about what lies ahead for a number of drivers in 2014 and beyond.  Mark Martin didn’t use the word "retire" but made it pretty clear he does not expect to do much in the way of racing next season.  Martin appears headed for a testing role with Stewart-Haas Racing and at this point, has no plans to drive competitively.  Bobby Labonte is out of JTG/Daugherty Racing and with no Sprint Cup opportunity, said a Truck Series ride would be a consideration.  Jeff Burton was cryptic in his remarks about what he’ll do next year after leaving RCR but seems headed to run a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing in the No. 55 car.  And four-time Truck Series champ Ron Hornaday was unceremoniously released from the NTS No. 9 seat after Friday night’s race and may run a full year for Turner Scott Motorsports next season.  All three of NASCAR’s top divisions will have some different faces in new places for 2014.

- And Phoenix International Raceway continues to play to full houses when the Sprint Cup Series comes to town.  Another jam-packed crowd showed up on Sunday.  PIR has filled its two spots on the NASCAR schedule well as the stop after Daytona to start the year and before Homestead to end it.  There is talk the track may get some more improvements in coming years as NASCAR and parent company International Speedway Corporation (ISC) continue to build on the successful recent history in "The Valley of the Sun."

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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