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Driver Reports: Can Matt Kenseth catch up?

November 05, 2013, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com

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Veteran trails by seven with two races to go; Junior cracks top five

1. Jimmie Johnson (No. 48)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Johnson leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings with 2,342 points.
Last week: Sunday was Johnson's most powerful performance of the season, a Texas turnaround that leaves the five-time champion atop the standings in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup after a maximum points day. Entering the AAA Texas 500 tied at the top with Matt Kenseth (Kenseth owned the tiebreaker), Johnson left with a seven-point lead and a new black cowboy hat, given to the race winner. He led 255 (of 334) laps and is two races away from winning his sixth career championship as the series heads to Phoenix International Raceway. Watch Johnson in Victory Lane in the video below.
What he said: "Matt didn't have maybe the best day and still finished fourth. This thing is going to go to the last lap at Homestead, and it is going to come down to mistakes. I'm very excited about our performance and what we did here. We'll enjoy this, but there is still two weeks of very hard racing ahead of us."
Outlook: In 20 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Johnson has four wins, 13 top-fives, 16 top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Johnson ranks first out of 60 drivers with an average place of 7.0. He finished second in the first 2013 race at Phoenix.

2. Matt Kenseth (No. 20)

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Kenseth is second in the standings with 2,335 points.
Last week: Kenseth did all he could to keep the No. 48 in his view. Even with a few blazing final pit stops, there was nothing the Joe Gibbs Racing driver could do to slow Johnson's assault on the field. In fact, Kenseth may have pressed too hard. He was busted for speeding on pit road on Lap 173, and his ensuing pass-through penalty dropped him from second to 16th (you can watch video below). A caution for debris on Lap 188 bunched the field back up, and from there, Kenseth drove back into the top five and finished fourth. One week after Kenseth gained ground at Johnson's best track (Martinsville), he lost it all back at perhaps his strongest remaining track.
What he said: "Honestly, the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) had us from the time they unloaded until the time they put it back on the truck. They were just dominant all weekend. … That speeding penalty got us behind -- we definitely didn't need that, but really I don't know at the end of the day if that really affected our finish much."
Outlook: In 22 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Kenseth has one win, five top-fives, nine top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Kenseth ranks 15th out of 60 drivers with an average place of 16.0. He finished seventh in the first 2013 race at Phoenix.

3. Kevin Harvick (No. 29)

Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Harvick is third in the standings with 2,302 points.
Last week: Harvick moved up to third in the standings after a top-10 finish at Texas, but his ascent was more due to Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon having rough days. Gordon, who was third in the standings entering the race, blew a tire, hit the wall hard and finished 38th. Busch finished outside the top 10, allowing Harvick to gain enough points following his eighth-place run. Harvick gambled late by being the first driver to pit during green-flag runs. If a caution fell, he would have been in good shape to make a charge toward the top. When that didn't happen, he slowly last ground over the final 10 laps. With two races to go, he is 40 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
What he said: "We struggled a bit today with the handling of our Budweiser Chevrolet. It seemed like no matter what we tried we couldn't tighten it up enough, and then at the end we went a little too far. We still had a strong finish and gained a spot in the point standings."
Outlook: In 21 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Harvick has three wins, six top-fives and 10 top-10s. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Harvick ranks fifth out of 60 drivers with an average place of 11.0. He finished 13th in the first 2013 race at Phoenix.

4. Kyle Busch (No. 18)

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Busch is fourth in the standings with 2,290 points.
Last week: At first, it looked like Texas would go down as one Kyle Busch's most memorable showings of 2013. The No. 18 Toyota crunched the wall early in the race after blowing a tire (watch video of that below), but Busch's team was able to repair the car on pit road and keep the driver on the lead lap. Rowdy drove through the field and was second during the final green-flag pit stops. But Busch was caught speeding on pit road, and his top-10 hopes were over after that. His 13th-place showing actually enabled Busch to move up one spot in the standings, but he lost ground in points.
What he said: Busch was not available for comment. Crew chief Dave Rogers said: "Kyle feels terrible because he sped on pit road late in the race, but this is a team and we've got his back. He was giving us all he had to give us the best finish possible and we took a little bit more than what was there. That's OK, we'll go to Phoenix and Homestead and race them."
Outlook: In 17 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Busch has one win, three top-fives, 10 top-10s and two poles. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Busch ranks eighth out of 60 drivers with an average place of 12.0. He finished 23rd in the first 2013 race at Phoenix.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Earnhardt Jr. is fifth in the standings with 2,280 points.
Last week: Earnhardt Jr. delivered a performance Sunday that matched the paint scheme of his No. 88 Chevrolet -- golden. With a car that was exceptional on the long runs, Junior took advantage of a light day of caution flags (five) and steadily picked off drivers in his path. All except one, at least. There was no catching Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, but Junior finished second. It's his third runner-up finish of the Chase and moves the veteran up to fifth in the standings. Of Earnhardt's three second-place runs in the postseason races, two have come at races in which Johnson has won. He also finished second to Five-Time in the season-opening Daytona 500.
What he said: "We came here and tested so we thought we would have a good chance to win it here. Obviously our teammate was here testing too, so it paid off for him. Congratulations to Jimmie. We've been working really hard. (Crew chief) Steve (Letarte) has done a great job. It's paying off. We're getting close."
Outlook: In 22 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Earnhardt Jr. has two wins, five top-fives and nine top-10s. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Earnhardt Jr. ranks 21st out of 60 drivers with an average place of 17.2. He finished fifth in the first 2013 race at Phoenix.

6. Jeff Gordon (No. 24)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Gordon is sixth in the standings with 2,273 points.
Last week: Gordon's surge toward the top of the standings is stymied, his championship hopes severely dented. All this one week after his first win of the season, a Martinsville masterpiece that put the veteran at third in the standings. At Texas, he absolutely crunched his car after a tire blew, and needed more than an hour in the garage to get it back on the track (watch video below). Gordon's 38th-place finish netted him six points. Leader Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, earned 48. The wreck caused Gordon to drop three places in the standings, the worst fall of the week.
What he said: "It's a shame. This team has worked so hard to get ourselves in this position and we can't have things like this happen. This is going to hurt."
Outlook: In 29 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Gordon has two wins, 10 top-fives, 20 top-10s and three poles. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Gordon ranks third out of 60 drivers with an average place of 10.7. He finished ninth in the first 2013 race at Phoenix.

7. Clint Bowyer (No. 15)

Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Bowyer is seventh in the standings with 2,273 points.
Last week: Bowyer continued a Chase trend of finishing in the top 10, but just barely. In the eight postseason races, Bowyer has five top-10s. Three of those are 10th-place finishes (including the Texas race), and he also has an 11th-place effort at Charlotte. That's the Bowyer we saw in the regular season -- no wins, but lots of solid finishes. Over 26 races, it's enough to climb into the top three in the points standings. In the 10-race Chase, you need wins to compete for the championship.
What he said: "We started a little further back than we liked but we got to the front pretty fast. We made good adjustments all afternoon and gave it all we had to get into the top 10. We'll go to Phoenix now with the aim of winning or at least getting a top-five."
Outlook: In 16 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Bowyer has two top-fives and six top-10s. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Bowyer ranks 16th out of 60 drivers with an average place of 16.7. He finished sixth in the first 2013 race at Phoenix.

8. Greg Biffle (No. 16)

Roush Fenway Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Biffle is eighth in the standings with 2,269 points.
Last week: Perhaps the most memorable part of Biffle's day was when he gave a love tap to the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson as the race leader was planning his pitting strategy. There's no bad blood between the two drivers, but it was a little reminder that Biffle hadn't forgotten last week's contact between the two at Martinsville. Biffle, who generally has success as Texas, finished 12th on the day after starting 18th. | Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
What he said: "That was a tough one. The car wasn't very good in traffic and it seemed like we missed maybe the front gaps a little bit on the start. We didn't get it until it seemed like about 20 to go or 30 or 50 or whatever that last pit stop was. We just weren't where we wanted to be."
Outlook:
In 19 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Biffle has five top-fives and seven top-10s. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Biffle ranks 10th out of 60 drivers with an average place of 14.8. He finished 17th in the first 2013 race at Phoenix.

9. Joey Logano (No. 22)

Penske Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Logano is ninth in the standings with 2,251 points.
Last week: Logano continues to rally from a horrific start to the Chase, when he finished 37th at Chicago. He had one of the best cars on the track at Texas and finished third, the second time this postseason he's finished in that position. Logano was one of two drivers to move up two spots in the standings with two races to go. | Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
What he said: "From the start of the race we started moving our way forward and I thought I was a second- or third-place car all night. I don't know what number I came in to pit but a couple laps before that Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) got in front of me and I tried my heart out trying to pass him. Overall we can't be disappointed with a third-place finish, but the 48 car was just ridiculously fast."
Outlook: In nine career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Logano has one top-five and three top-10s. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Logano ranks 18th out of 60 drivers with an average place of 17.0. He finished 26th in the first 2013 race at Phoenix.

10. Kurt Busch (No. 78)

Furniture Row Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Busch is 10th in the standings with 2,246 points.
Last week: Busch struggled with his No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet all day at Texas. He consistently was running last among Chase drivers, and was the first Chase guy Jimmie Johnson put a lap down. It was a bit puzzling, considering Busch finished fourth at Chicagoland and second at Kansas -- also 1.5-mile tracks -- in the postseason. He finished 17th. By virtue of a tiebreaker he would lose to Johnson, Busch has been eliminated from title contention.
What he said: "It wasn't a good day, or for that matter, a good weekend. We were off since we unloaded on Friday and never found the right balance for this track. We gave it everything we had, but yet it was disappointing because these mile-and-a-half tracks should be good for us."
Outlook: In 21 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Busch has one win, four top-fives and 11 top-10s. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Busch ranks fourth out of 60 drivers with an average place of 10.7. He finished 27th in the first 2013 race at Phoenix.

11. Carl Edwards (No. 99)

Roush Fenway Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Edwards is 11th in the standings with 2,226 points.
Last week: Edwards had the worst day among the Chase contenders and was among the drivers officially eliminated from championship contention. He started on the Coors Light Pole and led the second-most laps (38) to Jimmie Johnson (255) before trouble hit. During early cautions, Edwards used his prominent pit placement -- the first one -- to beat Johnson off pit road. His car faded toward the back though, and eventually a valve spring broke. His No. 99 Ford was done for the day after 187 laps, and Edwards was scored with a 37th-place finish.
What he said: "We had such a great weekend going. The car, during the middle part of the race we were struggling but we were starting to get it worked out. … We will just go on to Phoenix and hopefully get another win there and go to Homestead. We gotta get in the top 10 so we can go to Vegas one way or another."
Outlook: In 18 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Edwards has two wins, seven top-fives, 11 top-10s and three poles. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Edwards ranks ninth out of 60 drivers with an average place of 12.9. He won the first 2013 race at Phoenix.

12. Ryan Newman (No. 39)

Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Newman is 12th in the standings with 2,224 points.
Last week: Newman was officially eliminated from championship contention on Sunday. Although the Stewart-Haas Racing driver finished ninth, he's now 12th in the standings and 118 points behind Jimmie Johnson. | Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
What he said: "There wasn't much that we didn't try to change. We just couldn't get it to where I needed it to be. But in spite of how much we struggled today, to finish ninth was good. We'll certainly take that after the day we had."
Outlook: In 22 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Newman has one win, eight top-fives, eight top-10s and four poles. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Newman ranks 12th out of 60 drivers with an average place of 15.5. He finished 40th in the first 2013 race at Phoenix.

13. Kasey Kahne (No. 5)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Kahne is 13th in the standings with 2,209 points.
Last week: Kahne ran in the top 10 for most of Sunday's race, even serving as a shield of sorts for teammate Jimmie Johnson when Matt Kenseth approached the No. 5 car. Kahne's Chevrolet became more powerful as the race went on, and he finished fifth, giving Hendrick Motorsports three drivers in the top five. It was a nice reversal for Kahne, who had finished 36th and 27th, respectively, in the previous two races.
What he said: "The Hendrick (Motorsports) cars were good today. Congrats to them. I'm glad we were able to have kind of a flawless race, and race all day and make a little bit of ground at the end."
Outlook:
In 18 career starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Kahne has one win, three top-fives and six top-10s. In the past eight years at Phoenix, Kahne ranks 24th out of 60 drivers with an average place of 19.5. He finished 19th in the first 2013 race at Phoenix.