Jimmie Johnson the forgotten man at Phoenix
Amazing how Jimmie Johnson slipped so suddenly to such an afterthought on Sunday.
He had entered the Phoenix race viewed by many as unstoppable for a sixth Cup championship in seven years, and openly but softly acknowledged that a record eight titles is his goal.
Then, after the brawling had ceased in the pits and garages over Jeff Gordon's payback wrecking of Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski had slipped through two melees to finish sixth and become odds-on favorite for the championship, first the Gordon-Bowyer wreck and then the wrecking in an oil slick within sight of the checkered flag because NASCAR officials had hesitated to throw a caution there stood the almost forgotten Johnson, off to the side, speaking softly with ESPN pit reporter Dave Burns.
"It's way, way out of our control after the problem we had today," Johnson said of the championship, after smacking the wall with 77 laps left due to a tire that failed because of a melted bead caused by overheating brakes.
Mark Garrow recaps how Brad Keselowski took the points lead at Phoenix. Plus, Jeff Gordon wrecks Clint Bowyer out of title contention and a brawl erupts.
The "bead," by the way, is the rubber lip in the inside rim of the tire that extends around the circumference of the wheel and keeps the tire on. When it melts, the tire goes. Goodyear engineers reported that's what happened to Johnson.
He had overheated his brakes, trying to compensate for a car that was "tight," or understeering. He was pressing to maintain seventh place, just as he'd had Keselowski pressing in the previous two races, which Johnson had won.
Johnson had entered the race seven points ahead of Keselowski and was favored to win the duel with the youngster due to the championship-battle seasoning of Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus.
Johnson left the race 20 points down to Keselowski, who now must finish only 15th or better Sunday at Homestead-Miami (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) to win the championship, even if Johnson were to lead the most laps and win the race.
"I've been doing this a long time," Johnson told Burns. "I've won a few championships and I've lost a lot."
But he is known more for the five Cups he won, in a row, before faltering last year. And he was known up until the moment he hit the wall Sunday as a man likely to win a sixth title this time and then go on to tie and perhaps surpass the record of seven championships shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
The calm of Knaus in triumph and defeat never ceases to amaze, and his voice was almost serene on the radio after Johnson's impact.
"Wheel it around here, buddy, and we'll get some new tires on it and take a look at it," Knaus said.
"No brakes," Johnson said, just as calmly.
There never was even a rise in Knaus' voice until he warned crewmen, "You're gonna have to pick the car up first, to get the jack underneath it."
They're totally professional, win, lose or wreck -- meaning a sixth, a seventh, even an eighth championship is within reach for the 48 team, even if the total goes on hold for a second straight season.
"Losing isn't any fun, but we'll be back next weekend and next year, hungrier than ever," Johnson said, "and doing the best we can."
Nationwide Series: Sadler self-destructs at Phoenix
All Saturday afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway, Elliott Sadler was a classic case study in trying too hard. And it cost him any realistic hope of the championship he'd wanted so badly.
First, he pressed in qualifying, wrecking his primary car, and had to start in the back in his backup. Then he pushed and pressed throughout the race, and finally wrecked with a lap and a half to go, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished third behind winner Joey Logano and Brian Vickers.
Sadler had come to Phoenix tied in points atop the standings with Stenhouse, but Stenhouse had the edge on a tiebreaker, with six wins this season to Sadler's four. So Sadler felt he had to press. He is now 20 points down headed into the season finale at Homestead-Miami on Saturday.
Stenhouse must finish only 16th or better to win his second straight Nationwide championship as he heads for Cup level next year to replace the departing Matt Kenseth at Roush Fenway Racing.
"I did it to myself," Sadler told ESPN reporters at the track. "I put my team in a hole, qualifying like we did. I just got a little loose getting under the 88 [Cole Whitt]. It was 100 percent my fault."
Even though Stenhouse is at the brink of another title, he spoke cautiously.
The 20-point lead "makes us feel good," he said, "but we've given up 20 points in one race [before], so it's not over 'til it's over."
Stenhouse hinted he might have had a shot at beating Logano and Vickers for the win if not for Sadler's wreck.
"That white-flag lap was gonna be really fun if we could have done without that caution," Stenhouse said.
The win was Logano's ninth in Nationwide this season, best in the series, but as a Cup regular he is not eligible for Nationwide points.
Camping World Truck Series: Phoenix race doesn't disappoint
You want parity? Look to the Truck series, where on Friday night at Phoenix Brian Scott became the 15th different winner this season.
You want rising stars? Look to the Truck series, where 20-year-old Kyle Larson almost became the ninth first-time winner of 2012, holding off Scott until the final restart with two laps left.
You want scrambling in a championship hunt? James Buescher appeared headed for a breezy trip to Homestead-Miami for next week's season finale, but his late wreck tightened the standings, moving Timothy Peters to second place, 11 points back. Ty Dillon's own wreck and partial recovery dropped him to third in the standings but gained him three points on Buescher, so Dillon is now just 12 points behind.
You want candor? Listen to what Parker Kligerman told Speed channel reporters at Phoenix International Raceway, moments after wrecking himself from third in the standings back to fifth, 37 points down and essentially out of the hunt.
"If you look at the replay, it's not very impressive, is it?" Kligerman said after sliding into two other trucks and then popping the wall hard enough to ruin his chances. "You don't want to just get loose and nose into the wall. That's not very good driving. We were really loose all night. But there's no blame but myself "
Larson, fresh off clinching a season title in the developmental K&N Pro Series East, took the lead on a restart with 37 laps left and consistently held off Scott, even through a side-by-side confrontation with 27 to go. And after that, Larson worked traffic masterfully until Buescher's wreck, due to a blown right-front tire, brought out the final caution.
Scott, driving for Kyle Busch, got past Larson on the outside, exiting Turn 2, and was home free after that.
"Man, I had him beat on that green-flag run," said Larson, who came up through NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program. "I got a restart there and he [Scott] took the air off me going into 1, and I got loose and he just worked the momentum around me."
Scott hadn't won in Trucks since 2009, mainly because he has been focusing on the Nationwide Series.
"Man, I miss this series," Scott said in Victory Lane. "This series is a lot of fun."
He got that right.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Racing Resources says
Sprint Cup Series
• Kevin Harvick won the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday. It was Harvick's 19th career win in his 429th start. He'd last won at Richmond in September 2011 (44 starts between the wins). It was his third career Chase win.
• Harvick now has three victories at Phoenix in 20 starts. His three wins rank second all time at that track.
• Harvick became the 15th different winner in 2012. He led once for the final 15 laps.
• Richard Childress Racing posted its 101st career win and fourth overall victory at Phoenix. It was RCR's first win of 2012.
• Chevrolet posted its 16th win at Phoenix and 14th victory of 2012.
• Denny Hamlin (second) earned his seventh top-5 finish in 15 races at Phoenix. He finished in the top two in both races there this season.
• Kyle Busch (third) got his sixth top-5 finish of the 2012 Chase, tying Jimmie Johnson for the most. Busch led 237 of 319 laps, the most of all drivers, but has failed to win the past eight races after leading the most laps.
• Kasey Kahne (fourth) posted only his third top-5 finish in 17 races at Phoenix.
• Ryan Newman (fifth) scored his first top-5 finish since finishing fifth at Chicagoland in September.
• Brad Keselowski (sixth) has finished in the top 11 in every Chase race this season. He leads the standings by 20 points over Johnson and can win the 2012 Cup title with a finish of 15th or better at Homestead regardless of where Johnson finishes.
• Kurt Busch finished seventh, the first time this season he has finished in the top 10 in consecutive races this season.
• Johnson (32nd) had his worst finish of the 2012 Chase. He lost 27 points to new points leader Keselowski.
• Joey Logano won the Nationwide Series Great Clips 200 at Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday, his 18th career series win in his 109th start. It was his ninth win of 2012, the most in the series. He has won 43 percent of his starts this season (9-for-22). It was his first win at Phoenix in his eighth start, but he's had top-10 finishes in every Phoenix start. He's the 14th driver to win at Phoenix. This is the 13th different track he has won on in the series. Seven of his nine wins this season were on tracks he had previously never won on. He led the race four times for 168 laps, including the final six.
• Logano's victory was the 77th career win in the series for Joe Gibbs Racing. JGR has won nine races in 2012, all by Logano. It was the team's fourth win at Phoenix. • Logano's victory was the 10th in 2012 for Toyota and the manufacturer's fourth win at Phoenix.
• Brian Vickers (finished second) has finished in the top 10 in his past 12 series starts. This was his first series start of 2012.
• Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (third) has finished in the top 10 in all six starts at Phoenix. He will win the 2012 series championship with a 16th-place finish or better at Homestead-Miami Speedway regardless of where Elliott Sadler finishes.
• Kyle Busch (fourth) has finished in the top 10 in his past 10 starts but is still winless in 21 starts this season.
• Kasey Kahne (fifth) got his third top-5 finish in 15 starts this season.
• Austin Dillon (sixth) earned his 11th straight top-10 finish, setting a new record for most consecutive top-10 finishes by a rookie.
• Danica Patrick (10th) got her fourth top-10 finish of 2012, and second in a row.
• Sadler (22nd) had his second-worst finish of the season, behind his 24th at Darlington. His accident on lap 199 while battling for 11th leaves him 20 points behind leader Stenhouse. They entered Phoenix tied.
Camping World Truck Series
• Brian Scott won the Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix International Raceway on Friday. It was his second career win in his 62nd start. His only other win was at Dover in May 2009; he's had 22 starts since.
• Scott is the 15th different winner of 2012, a series record for most in a season. He is the 13th different winner at Phoenix.
• Scott led three times for 48 laps, including the final two.
• Kyle Busch Motorsports posted its 18th career victory and second win of 2012. It was KBM's second victory at PIR.
• Toyota posted its fourth overall win at Phoenix and ninth victory of 2012.
• Kyle Larson (second) had his best finish in his third start, losing the lead with two to go after leading 43 laps.
• Joey Coulter (third) earned his seventh top-5 this season -- his best finish at Phoenix.
• Ryan Blaney (fifth) posted his fifth top-10 finish in eight starts.
• Ty Dillon (15th) had only his fourth finish outside the top 10, He gained three points on the leader and is 12 back.
• Buescher (17th) now leads the standings by 11 and can clinch the series championship with a seventh-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
-- Racing Resources