FORT WORTH, Texas
NASCAR owes the Dickies 500 a little kickback for the ratings it's going to receive for the race today at Phoenix International Raceway.
When Jimmie Johnson finished 38th last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, his lead over Mark Martin in the Chase standings was trimmed to 73 points.
NASCAR and ABC can boast that the Chase for the Sprint Cup title is back on with two races remaining.
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It really isn't.
Johnson is still going to win his fourth consecutive title in Homestead in a couple of weeks. The only thing the race at Texas did was deny him a chance of clinching the title this weekend at Phoenix, something that has not been done since the Chase format began.
The logic is simple. Johnson does not crater under pressure. He has not in any of his three previous championship runs, and he will not this season.
If you're expecting him to have another poor finish today, you're asking for the impossible.
In the past four seasons, Johnson has had back-to-back finishes of 30th or worse twice. The first came in 2007 and the second earlier this year when he finished 30th at Talladega and 36th at Richmond.
But neither of those back-to-back races came in the Chase and neither of those races was at Phoenix. Johnson said after the Dickies 500 that all he has to do over the next two races is keep Martin in his mirrors and he will be fine.
It's more likely that the rest of the field will be chasing Johnson today in Phoenix. Martin, who won at the 1-mile oval earlier this year, has been good at the track. His average finish is 9.0 in 25 races and he has 16 top-10 finishes.
That should give him reason for hope if Johnson wasn't at the same track. Johnson has won 25 percent of his races at PIR and has top-10 finishes in 10 of his 12 starts. His average finish is 5.4.
Johnson has finished no worse than seventh at PIR in his last eight starts and his worst finish at the track is 15th.
"At the end of the day I feel very confident," Johnson said about his Phoenix chances. "I feel very strong about the performance Hendrick Motorsports will have. I just hope it's the 48 car on top of the heap."
If Johnson finishes fifth and doesn't lead a single lap, the most Martin can gain on him is 40 points. That's if everything goes right for Martin, with him winning and leading the most laps.
And so what if Johnson's lead is "only" 73 points? It's still the second-biggest lead he has had after Texas during his title tenure. Only last year, when he led Carl Edwards by 106 points, was his lead bigger.
So what would it take for someone to catch Johnson? History says it can be done. Alan Kulwicki was 85 points out of the lead with two races remaining in 1992. He ended up beating Bill Elliott, the only time in NASCAR history a point deficit of more than 73 has been made up with two races left.
But that was 17 years ago and the driver Kulwicki caught wasn't trying to accomplish something that has never been done before.
Johnson is. And despite what some people want you to think, it's going to be a done deal.