It’s always said that NASCAR’s marathon season gets underway not at the traditional Daytona 500 season-opener, but at the year’s second race. Thanks to the use of power-sapping restrictor plates Daytona always is a freak event offering little or no advice about the season to follow. To the one-mile Phoenix oval last weekend therefore where the engines were back to full power and a real measure began to emerge of who might contend for this year’s Sprint Cup Championship.
And on the face of the Phoenix results the man to beat this year is Daytona winner and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson who finished second in Arizona behind Carl Edwards who was delighted to score his first win in 70 races or two years. Edwards battled for the Sprint Cup with Johnson in 2008 and again with Tony Stewart in 2011, but last year he was out of luck and out of contention, failing to win a race or make the end of season Chase for the Cup.
Nor did Edwards enjoy any luck at Daytona this year, crashing no fewer than five cars during the week of practice, qualifying and racing in Florida. He managed to make the finish in the 500 but his battered car was classified 33rd, 41 laps behind winner Johnson. Thus was Edwards relieved of his burden after winning in Phoenix. He led the most laps in Arizona and controlled the closing stages of the race as Johnson and defending champion Brad Keselowski tried to run him down.
Edwards drives for Jack Roush’s three-car Roush Fenway Ford team. Roush won NASCAR’s championship in 2003 with Matt Kenseth and again in ‘04 with Kurt Busch and Roush hopes to mount another serious challenge this year with Edwards.
Defending champion Keselowski drove a strong race in Phoenix. He was chasing Johnson for second in the closing laps but was pushed back to fourth on the final restart by Denny Hamlin. Keselowski drives for Roger Penske, of course, and Penske has switched this year from the departed Dodge to Ford cars and engines. Penske appears to have made a seamless transition to Ford and Keselowski looks like being as competitive as he was last year.
After two of 36 races Johnson leads the Sprint Cup championship with 90 points, eight more than Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr who finished fifth in Phoenix and second at Daytona. Is Johnson on the way to his sixth NASCAR title? It’s much too early to say, of course, but Johnson is building a remarkable record and at 37 years of age he’s in the prime of his career and entirely capable of equalling or even exceeding NASCAR’s record of seven championships shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.
“It is a little too early yet,” Johnson said. “Once we get another race or two behind us, we’ll have a better understanding. I have confidence because I know how hard (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) works. I know the tools and commitment that Rick (Hendrick) has and gives us and how hard everybody works at the shop. We’ve had great test sessions this winter, but it is a little early. Maybe after Vegas and Bristol we can see which team has the upper hand.
“We never stop learning,” Johnson added. “Something is always evolving and changing. Just when you think a particular mindset has become extinct or a particular setup is never going to be in a race car again, somebody finds a way to make it work once again. We see this happen all the time. The new ‘Gen 6’ car is introducing some very old school thought and tools to be used on the race car. So nothing’s ever really gone. It always seems to find its way back into the sport.”
Johnson is as good, maybe even better, than any racing driver anywhere in the world today. He also enjoys one of the world’s best racing teams in Hendrick Motorsports. But he also faces motor racing’s toughest, most competitive field.
I know many Motor Sport readers don’t like to hear this, but it’s true. The depth to the field in any other form of racing pales into insignificance compared to NASCAR and if Johnson is able to win his sixth and record-equalling seventh NASCAR title in the coming years he will have achieved something that’s truly remarkable.