<
>

JJ will be tough to catch

Editor's note: An explanation of Ricky's "Rule of 72" can be found here.

What has been most remarkable to me about this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup has been the performance of Jimmie Johnson over the past two weeks.

They are perhaps the most impressive two races I've ever seen, when you consider them in the context of what's on the line. Sure, we've seen drivers win back-to-back races. And we saw an incredible performance last year by Tony Stewart, winning five of the 10 Chase races. But what separates Johnson and these last two events from all the others I've seen is Johnson's total domination from a points standpoint.

In both races -- Texas last week and Martinsville the week before -- Johnson won the pole in qualifying, led the most laps, and of course, won the race. That's two max-points races, back to back. And in neither, in my opinion, did Johnson appear to have a far-and-away better car than the competition. Rather, he and the No. 48 team executed like a team that has won five championships.

This is the value the No. 48 team brings to the Chase, and I expect the team will exploit it in the last two races of the year. It's the little things that matter. As we look ahead to Phoenix, as much as I admire the effort by Brad Keselowski through the Chase, barring a mechanical problem or contact on the track with another driver, I see Johnson as being too strong to stop.

This week, as Johnson fended off Keselowski to hold on to the Chase lead, we eliminated Kasey Kahne from contention using the Rule of 72. That leaves Johnson, Keselowski and Clint Bowyer.

Kahne was eliminated with a 25th-place finish, the product of a flat tire after having made contact with teammate Jeff Gordon. And although Kahne won't win the championship in 2012, he and his team should be proud of their effort. They actually have more top-five finishes at this point in the Chase than Keselowski -- four to three -- so the No. 5 team has shown the strength to compete for a title but not the consistency. It will have to wait until next year.

Although Bowyer survived with a sixth-place finish, he desperately needed a top-5 and is on the cusp of elimination. Unless Johnson and Keselowski each perform poorly in Phoenix, which will allow Bowyer back into this, it will come down to the No. 48 and the No. 2.

Qualifying Factor

One of the fundamental issues I'm keeping my eye on this week at Phoenix is the disparity in qualifying between Johnson and Keselowski.

Phoenix is a more difficult track for passing than Texas last week, or Homestead-Miami next week. At 1 mile, it's a half-mile shorter than Texas, and it has less than half of the banking of Texas. So you won't see side-by-side racing lap after lap at Phoenix. It will be more of a track-position race. And it will be difficult for a driver to qualify poorly and work his way to the front -- certainly more difficult than last week.

So far in the Chase, Johnson has three poles, while Keselowski has none. Johnson is qualifying eighth on average in the Chase, while Keselowski is on average qualifying 18th.

That's significant because we're down to the final two races and the 2012 champion needs to be nearly perfect to close out the season.

From Keselowski's perspective, this week he needs to continue to show aggression when he needs to -- only when it can reward him -- and not take unnecessary risks. In other words, he needs to stay in the game.

We haven't seen a team match the No. 48 team's speed in the past two weeks. The difference for No. 2 could come down to strategy in this track-position race. We'll likely see several different strategies where track position overrides driver comfort, much the same as you would see at a track like New Hampshire.

Taking two tires when others take four could gain you several positions. I expect to see that scene repeated throughout this race.

It is a gamble. And Keselowski and the No. 2 team don't necessarily have to gamble to win the championship. At seven points behind Johnson in the standings, they're still close. But one could argue this is the farthest they've been behind in the Chase and that a trend has been established ever since Johnson's remarkable recovery at Kansas. Johnson continues to perform to perfection, and Keselowski remains just a step behind.

At this point, a step behind won't win a title.