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Race Day: This Is About As Close As It Gets

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 14 2010

Denny Hamlin will slide into his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as The Man today at Phoenix International Raceway. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Fans keep hearing that this year’s Sprint Cup points race is one of the closest in recent history. Three drivers separated by 59 points with just today’s Kobalt 500 at Phoenix International Raceway and next week’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway to go.

Why is it so close, with Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick all still in contention?

Here are the opinions of a select group of drivers on that question:

Jeff Burton, No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet: “I don’t know if it’s that the No. 48 (Johnson) isn’t as strong or if just other people have stepped their ball game up. Honestly, I think that the COT thing is starting to take affect; I think that the idea that NASCAR had about taking a lot of the things away from the teams to keep things a little more similar and create more chance for more people to win races, I think that’s started to take effect. There’s a lot of stuff going on that’s made the racing more equal. Last week after that incident (with Jeff Gordon), I went in the trailer and sat down and watched the race.

“And I’m watching the speed monitor and I’m looking at the top 20 cars. And the top 20 cars, there was like a tenth of a second difference between the fastest guy and the 18th place guys. I

Jimmie Johnson will need to find 33 points today to catch leader Denny Hamlin. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)

mean it was just so crazy close and that’s a factor of multi-car teams. That’s a factor of people becoming more familiar with the car. It’s a factor of Goodyear bringing better tires and making the cars drive better. I think it’s all those things. It’s more people coming to similar results on the race track and that’s made for a tighter Chase.”

Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet: “Well, I just think you have three really good teams. I think those three teams all year long have really been the teams to beat. Kevin (Harvick) has been leading the points pretty much all year long and that team has really stepped up. I felt like Denny (Hamlin) at the end of last year was really the strongest team. And you’ve got Jimmie (Johnson) and the No. 48 who for the last four years have been the team to beat.

“The No. 48 jut knows how to step it up when that Chase comes around and they have again. But I think the No. 11 knew that they had something for them, and they’ve shown that they have; and the No. 29 is a great driver and that’s a great team and they know how to pick and choose their battles. When they weren’t running great, they got the most out of it. At tracks they could win at or get that second place, they’ve gotten it. That’s why they’re in it.”

Fast facts

Race: Kobalt Tools 500

Place: Phoenix International Raceway; Avondale, Ariz.

When: Today, 3:15 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN, 2 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 128

Track layout: 1-mile oval

Banking: 11 degrees in turns 1 and 2; 9 degrees in 3 and 4

Grandstand seating: 56,000

Race distance: 312 laps/500 kilometers

Estimated pit window: 70-78 laps

2009 winner: Jimmie Johnson

2009 polesitter: Martin Truex Jr.

Today’s polesitter: Carl Edwards

Baby talk

Ryan Newman is schedule to start today’s race. However, he is on call and may have to leave as his wife is due to give birth any minute. Will he answer the call?

“I don’t know,” Newman said. “Honestly, I don’t know. It all depends on the timing of things. Obviously, if I am in the car, another few laps may not hurt. I’m just sayin’. I have a couple people in line to delay the message as it gets to me, just in case.

“Obviously, that is really important in my line. Our first baby. I don’t know if you can say first baby or last baby or whatever, but, it is important to be there. To be there for her. She has her mom by her side so that is really good too. I told her when she was filing, not to get any paper cuts, just be careful.”

Ron Hornaday Jr. is standing by. To get in the car, that is, not go to the hospital.

Trivia time

Three drivers in today’s race made their Cup debuts at Phoenix. Who are they?

Rally time

When the season ends, Carl Edwards will be off to Europe to compete in the Race of Champions. Good deal, he said.

“We go over there and I get to see a country (Germany) I’ve never seen.  I get to race against guys like Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel and Sebastien Loeb, he’s amazing.  That’ll be fun.  It’ll be a rushed weekend.  We leave on Thursday and I think we’ll be back on Monday or Tuesday for the banquet, but that’s a good way to relax, I think.

“I think it makes me a better driver, though, because I got to ride with (World Rally Championship icon) Sebastien Loeb and he’s the best driver I’ve ever ridden with.  I’ve never seen anything like it with the way he drove the car through the wet, tight course.  That was amazing.”

Track tidbits

Most victories: 4, by Jimmie Johnson

Most poles: 4, by Ryan Newman

Most top-fives: 12, by Mark Martin

Most lead-lap finishes: 24, by Mark Martin

Most laps led: 867 by Rusty Wallace

Fewest DNFs: 0, by Jeff Burton in 22 races

Youngest winner: Kyle Busch, at 20 years, six months, 11 days

Oldest winner: Mark Martin, at 50 yeras, three months, nine days

Races won from the pole: 3

Last race won from the pole: April of 2009

Closest margin of victory: .130 seconds, in April of 2010

Widest margin of victory: 7.002 seconds, in April of 2008

Watch this

Elliott Sadler was asked what fans should watch for today.

“This is close quarters racing.  This is a narrow race track, especially coming off of turn four.  They’re gonna see a lot of paint being traded and I think they’re gonna see a lot of sheet metal being bent by the end of the day.

“But I think it’s gonna be neat as far as the championship side of it, you’re gonna see who is gonna be conservative, who is gonna play defense, who is gonna play offense.  From the rest of the field, we’re getting towards the end of the season and everybody wants to try to get a win and make a statement to make their teams feel better going into the winter, so I think you’ll see a lot of aggression out there – a lot more taking than giving – so it should be a very good race here at Phoenix.

“The track gets very slick during the middle of the daytime.  The groove is really wide now in turns three and four, so I think you’ll see good, hard racing and you’re gonna see some attitudes and I think you’ll still see that emotion like we saw last week at Texas.”

Two views

It was a long walk which Jeff Gordon took after being crashed by Jeff Burton at Texas last weekend. Like a 30-job at least. When he got there a “fight” broke out.

Burton was asked his thoughts as he watched Gordon coming toward him.

“I could tell by the gait in his walk and by the look in his eye that he wasn’t coming down there to talk,” Burton said.

Ryan Newman was asked what he would have been thinking.

“I’m pretty sure Jeff wouldn’t walk at me,” Newman said. “I’m just throwing that out there. I don’t think we would go down that path, no matter what happened. If he did, it probably wouldn’t be his best choice of the day.”

Speaking of Jeff vs. Jeff

Newman got to see it on replays. His thoughts?

“I was kind of curious as to why they were allowed to walk toward each others,” Newman said. “I mean, were they going to shake hands and bow or what? Why wouldn’t you be just forced to get in the ambulance and come back? It just seemed like it was weird circumstances. You crash each other under caution. You walk toward each other. They are allowed to walk toward each other like they are going to pat each other on the back and say ‘Hey, hope your kid does good next week on their report card’.  Next thing you know, they are fighting and pushing each other.

“One of them accepts the fault that caused the whole deal. Then they both get in the ambulance together and ride off. It is almost like bad soap opera and reality TV put in one little five minute caution flag.”

Trivia answer

Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish Jr. made their first Cup starts at PIR.

Up next

The season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Denny Hamlin won last year’s race there while Jimmie Johnson won the pole. Greg Biffle has the most victories at Homestead – three. Among those still in contention for this year’s championship, only Hamlin has a victory there.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 14 2010
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Terry says:

    MY NAME….is JOSE’ JEMANEZ….and I drive a NASCAR….
    Mr Jemanez…is that your crash helmet..?
    …..OH I HOPE NOT…..
    I am one of the few who liked the old flat Homestead and the new Homestead….and yes Bruton I speak very good East Tennessee version of English….
    If we can’t finish at Alanta like the old day’s
    Homestead is fine with me….
    Hey’ Feidel…Kyle say’s ” look at these *&%hole ”
    Now where’s my cigar cutter and Cuba Libre’