Phoenix setting the stage
FIGHTING WORDS — Although he rarely flashes his temper publicly, five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was clearly irked when 2012 champ Brad Keselowski said Johnson’s weakness was being raced hard with the championship on the line.
“That team’s success comes from almost the ‘gosh, golly-gee’ approach of not racing hard and just beating you on pure speed, which has been their traditional advantage,” Keselowski told FOXSports.com’s Lee Spencer of the No. 48 team earlier this week, when queried as to how Matt Kenseth should race Johnson in the final two races of the season. “For them, I wouldn’t want to have to race somebody that’s going to race me hard because that’s not their wheelhouse. I think that was one of our strengths last year.”
Informed of those words, Johnson begged to differ. Strenuously.
“I guess we need to ask Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin — who else have I raced for a championship, Carl Edwards? — a lot of those guys how we race,” Johnson said. “We race hard. That is not a weakness of ours by any stretch.”
And while Johnson admitted that Keselowski was faster than he was a year ago at Phoenix, when Johnson blew a right-front tire, Johnson said hard racing is a specialty of the 48 team.
“Racing is what I’m good at,” Johnson said. “I’m not the best at putting up the fastest lap, the best at qualifying or the best at topping the speed charts in practice, but look who passes cars on the race track. I’m good at racing. That is my sweet spot.”
As if to prove his point, Johnson went out and put the No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet on the pole for Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway with a lap of 139.222 miles per hour. Denny Hamlin snared the outside pole in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, with Joey Logano and Kyle Busch on Row 2, and on Row 3 Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer.
Matt Kenseth qualified 14th, two spots ahead of Keselowski. Qualifying draw played a big factor, with Kenseth going fourth, when the track was hotter and slower, and Johnson 41st. Still, Johnson impressed the competition.
“It seems like he's been in ‘kill’ mode the last few weeks,” Logano said of Johnson.
“They’re one of the very few teams in the garage that can win at every single type of track we go to,” added Hamlin.
NO REGRETS — A year ago at Phoenix International Raceway, it was leaked that Kevin Harvick would leave Richard Childress Racing in 2014 to join pal Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing. A tumultuous three days in the RCR camp climaxed with Harvick winning the 2012 AdvoCare 500, a perfect microcosm of the up-and-down nature of the relationship between driver and team. This time around, Harvick said he’s feeling good about finishing out his stint with RCR.
“Through the years we’ve been through a lot of different situations, for sure,” Harvick said Friday at PIR. “So, I think the nucleus of all that is still Gil (Martin, crew chief). This is a whole different group of guys than what we had three years ago and he’s made it into another great race team. So, I think he’s the one that keeps all that stuff together. But everybody is in good spirits. The testing that we did over the last two months has kind of worn everybody out, but everybody in the garage is worn out at this point. So, it’s good that we only have two weeks left and everybody can enjoy some down time with their families over the holiday season.”
PART-TIME JOB — Like Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton is about to leave RCR at the end of the season. Unlike Harvick, it appears Burton will not race a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule in 2014. Although Burton is not ready to disclose his plans for next year, he said he’s pretty much set.
“I feel that I know what I am going to be doing it’s just you all don’t,” Burton told reporters Friday morning at Phoenix International Raceway, where on Sunday he will make his 1,000th NASCAR start. “Some things have taken a little longer than I thought they would take and some of that is because of me. Some of that is because I slowed some stuff down and wanted to really think about it. Some of it is because some situations have popped up that weren’t there a little bit ago.”
Burton didn’t seem the least concerned about where he’s headed. “I feel very confident,” he said. “I know exactly what I’m going to be doing part of next year and there is another part of it that I’m still working on, but really close on. I’m just not the kind of person that is going to talk about it until we need to be talking about it.”
TRADING PLACES — While Harvick and Burton are on their way out at RCR, Ryan Newman is on his way in for 2014. Newman, in his fifth and final season at Stewart-Haas Racing, said Friday he has unfinished business before he moves to RCR for next season.
“About four or five weeks ago somebody had asked me a similar question and to me, it was like a series of books where you’re not finished with one book so you can’t start the next and in that series of books you have to get the last couple chapters over and done in order to get started and understand the next one,” said Newman.
And he did seem to be conflicted about the change.
“There’s part of me that’s excited about the future, no doubt and getting to that next book, but there’s part of me that wants to finish out these last couple chapters and do it strong and do it in the right way and we have two opportunities here being Phoenix and Homestead,” said Newman. “Those are tracks I’ve run good at. I can’t even say that it’s bittersweet because I don’t look at it as bittersweet as it is just a matter of doing my job and having fun. That’s what the whole goal is.”