Marcos Ambrose said the slick track was “pretty sketchy”. A.J. Allmendinger said his lap ”was insane.” Jeff Gordon, who won the last race here in February before the repave, called the surface ”treacherous” after qualifying 23rd.Ã‚Â After watching the Nationwide race followed by the K&N West series race yesterday, it looks like we should be prepared for a wreck fest with a chance of a game changer.
Matt Kenseth set the fastest lap to win the pole but qualifying was not without Drama.Ã‚Â Since being on the bottom line is so important, qualifying position means more than just who takes the green.Ã‚Â Tony Stewart was sitting in 7th with Edwards behind him in 8th until Kenseth ran his lap.Ã‚Â As Kenseth completed his lap and set the fastest time for the day, Edwards moved back on spot to 9th giving him the inside row on the start of the race with Stewart being moved back to the outside.Ã‚Â It is only for the first start of the race and there is 300 miles of racing between there and the finish line, but every little advantage has to be counted on a track where no one can predict the outcome.
”That was my plan. I thought, `Man, if we can sit on the pole, that will really help him,'” Kenseth laughed.
”I planned that. I am that good,” Kenseth claimed. ”The bottom is probably going to be an advantage to get started, but it is still 300 miles and I think at some point in the race every car is going to be in the top groove for a little bit.”
A.J Allmendinnger had the second fastest time of the day and he was amazed at how much the track conditions had changed from Fridays practice sessions, to Saturday’s qualifying runs.
“It was definitely a huge surprise,” he said. “Obviously, the sun is out and it’s warmer, but for as much grip as the track had [Friday], you would think maybe it would be [just] a little slower. At night last night I think the quick time was like a 25.50 by Carl, so to be almost a second slower was a huge surprise.
“I was in the hauler watching the first 10 or 15 cars run, and you see Jimmie [Johnson] go sailing off and almost get in the wall. Every car seemed to get looser and looser. At that point you have what you have. We tightened it up from [Friday]. Marcos put up a good lap and fed back what the track was like, so I went in there with an expectation, and my first lap was worse than even I expected. It was definitely a lot different than [Friday].”
The 2 drivers that everyone has marked as the “true contenders” for this years chase have been heard tossing comments back and forth.Ã‚Â Stewart’s trash talk has been keeping his face on camera and and reporters guessing about what he is going to say next.Ã‚Â For example, while still in Vistory lane last week in Texas he quipped “It’s theirs to lose now” when asked about his chances and how strongly he feels about them.
Then on Friday he stated in a news conference that being a former championship winner gives him an advantage, but was very vague about his meaning.
“It’s definitely an advantage. But I’m not going to tell you why ’cause that’s what I’m going to take to the next two weeks with me. We win this thing, I’ll tell you what the advantage is and why. But there’s an advantage.”
When asked directly about their rivalry however they each seem to have their focus where it needs to be.Ã‚Â On themselves, their team, and on what it is that THEY can do, and not so much about what the other guy is going to do.
“I guess it’s a friendly rivalry, if you even want to call it a rivalry,” Stewart said at Phoenix International Raceway. “I don’t know what the true definition of rivalry is, but he’s a good guy to be in a point battle with, for sure. I respect him a lot as a driver and as a person.”
“We get along with each other at the race track,” Stewart said. “We’ve got the dirt racing that we’ve done together at Eldora, and stuff that we like. We talk about that stuff a lot.”
“I feel like we are [in control], to be honest. I think we showed that last week,” Stewart said, referring to his victory at Texas, and Edwards second place finish. “We’re not racing worrying about where they’re at and what they’re doing each day. We’re worrying about our car, what we’ve got to do to be fast, what we’ve got to do to win races and I think we’ve responded to that with our actions on the race track and what we’ve done. So I would like to say we are right now. We’ve been able to battle back from a couple of really bad races in this Chase to be where we are at.”
Edwards seems calm and collected, not bothered by Stewart’s comments and focused on the task at hand, finishing better than Stewart.
“I think Tony is a guy I have looked up to a lot. He has done a lot of the things as a racer that racers all over the country can look up to,” said Edwards, who at 31 is nine years younger than Stewart.
“I’ve learned a lot about Tony over the last couple years, and have come to respect him as a person. I would say we have a good, competitive relationship. For us, it is pretty neat to be holding off a two-time champ having the best Chase he has ever had. It is neat to be battling with him. If we can continue and hold him off and win this thing, if it truly comes down to the end like I believe it will, [and] I truly believe it will come down to the last lap at Homestead, that is going to feel good that it is Tony. It will feel good that it is a guy that has that many achievements in the garage, in racing.”
“I feel that they have obviously had flashes of great speed, and have won four races, and we haven’t. But the job that we have done, I am very proud of. We don’t have trophies lined up, but the recoveries we have made and consistency we have shown and the ability to come back from really tough days, I wouldn’t have been able to do it a year or two years ago. I am pretty proud of that. At the end of the day we are still leading the points. They have to overtake us and beat us.”
Now who does the rest of the garage think is going to be the winner?Ã‚Â Once again the field is divided so it depends on who you ask.Ã‚Â Either way it’s going to be a nail biter in Phoenix today and the unknown element of the track rears it’s head.Ã‚Â Personally I am giving the advantage to Stewart today because of how much we all know he likes a slick race track.Ã‚Â It suits his style of racing, and no on can handle a sideways car like he can.Ã‚Â Edwards is also good on a slick track, but he does not have the years of experience behind him that Stewart does from driving on dirt tracks across the country, and wining races while doing it.
So where to the rest of the chasers chances lie mathematically?
Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman were mathematically eliminated at Texas. This week, it’s Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and even Johnson who find themselves in a situation where they cannot control their destiny.
If Carl Edwards finishes 34th or better — or Tony Stewart winds up 31st or better — Kurt Busch will be eliminated, even if he wins and receives the maximum number of points. If Carl Edwards finishes 28th or better — or Tony Stewart winds up 25st or better — Gordon is out, too.
Edwards can add Earnhardt to the elimination list with a 26th-place finish, or Stewart can do the same by finishing 23rd. And five-time champion Johnson could win Sunday but be eliminated from contention if Edwards winds up second.
The elimination scenarios for Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick are more complicated, and involve multiple variables too complicated to explain here.
Finally, there is a very slim chance Edwards could make the season finale a coronation. If he wins and Stewart finishes 43rd — and Keselowski, Kenseth and Harvick are all subsequently mathematically eliminated — Edwards would clinch the championship at Phoenix.