By Jenna Fryer
AVONDALE, Ariz.: Jimmie Johnson seized control of the championship battle following a disastrous performance by Matt Kenseth on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Johnson widened his lead in the Sprint Cup standings to 28 points over Kenseth heading into next Sunday’s season finale at Homestead by finishing third in a workmanlike performance for the five-time champion. Johnson will take his sixth title by finishing 23rd or better next week.
“We’re heading into Homestead in the position we want to be in,” Johnson said. “I’ll have to go down there and run 400 miles. 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.”
Kevin Harvick won Sunday at Phoenix for the second consecutive year, but all eyes were on Kenseth, who struggled mightily for the first time in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Kenseth finished 23rd.
His car was off at the very start of the race and Kenseth struggled to tell crew chief Jason Ratcliff what adjustments to make on a Toyota he described at one point as “just not drivable.”
“I don’t even know what to tell you to fix, to be honest,” Kenseth radioed. “I am so aero tight. So aero tight.”
Figuring track position and clean air was the only fix, Ratcliff opted for a strategy of having Kenseth do the opposite of other drivers: If they pitted, Kenseth did not, and vice versa. It worked as Kenseth cracked the top 10, but then backfired horrifically on a disastrous pit stop at the worst possible time.
Moments after contact between Johnson and Carl Edwards knocked Johnson out of the groove and forced him to save his Chevrolet from wrecking, a caution was called for Josh Wise’s spin. The Joe Gibbs Racing crew botched the pit stop, changing strategy mid-stop, and Kenseth compounded the problem by running over his air hose. His car had to be backed up before it could be serviced. It dropped him to 30th, two laps down, and he restarted behind Johnson at the one opportunity he’d had to make up some ground.
“After that issue, we came to pit road and left, and I expected him to be ahead of us,” Johnson said. “He was behind me and I knew it was just about trying to get points on him from there.”
Kenseth’s finish was his worst of the Chase, and worst since he was 23rd at Watkins Glen in August. He only had four finishes worse than 23rd all season, and three were either for an engine failure or a crash.
So off in the waning laps, Kenseth’s frustration could be heard over the radio when he couldn’t pass Bobby Labonte and David Gilliland.
“Man, this is bad,” Kenseth said. “I can’t believe I can’t even pass these two cars.”
Although he wasn’t great all weekend, Kenseth said he never saw this failure coming.
“No, because we haven’t had a day like this all year,” Kenseth said. “I can’t say I was overly confident about what we had. Obviously, it didn’t drive good or we would have been up there with the front group. I just did all I could with it, which wasn’t much.”
After seven wins this season, Ratcliff did not believe the team choked.
“Everybody’s going to say, ‘Oh, the pressure got to them,’ ” he said. “Just poor execution on a track that’s so hard to pass. You’re trying to make up for something that happened earlier and it just snowballs on you. The car wasn’t responding to changes. We’d make a change and wouldn’t help it, so we’d put that back and make a another change and I don’t know if that was better or worse, so I was like ‘Just quit working on the thing, it’s not responding.’
“We were just trying to make something out of nothing.”