AVONDALE, Ariz. – While the NASCAR sun is understandably rising and setting on Hendrick Motorsports these days, there's more than first place in the Chase for the Nextel Cup on the line in the season’s final two races.
Jimmie Johnson leads Jeff Gordon by 30 points in the battle for this year’s championship, and that duo remained the focus of attention Friday as cars qualified for Sunday’s Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Carl Edwards won the pole at 132.773 mph in his No. 99 Ford, with Martin Truex Jr. second at 132.758.
Gordon was third fastest at 132.699 mph, while Johnson will start sixth on Sunday after his lap at 132.129 mph.
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Barring some type of competitive cataclysm, those Hendrick teammates will settle the championship battle between themselves here this weekend and next week at Homestead Miami Speedway.
But there are still other battles.
Clint Bowyer qualified 20th on Friday and is third in the Chase standings. He seems destined to stay there since he’s 151 points behind Gordon and 158 ahead of fourth-place Kyle Busch.
“You never want to get caught from behind,” Bowyer said. “But right now, unless something drastically major happens, that won’t happen. It had better not happen.”
But from Busch on back, things are considerably tighter.
Busch is 18 points ahead of Edwards 34 up on Tony Stewart. The difference between fourth and sixth in the points last year, in terms of postseason money, was just over $435,000 – hardly anything to sneeze at.
“With a little bit better luck, we might be a little bit closer to the leaders,” said Edwards, who earned only his third career pole and his first since Homestead in the final race of the 2005 season. “But compared to the 48 (Johnson) and the 24 (Gordon), we just haven’t been as fast.”
Even Jeff Burton, who is 58 points behind Stewart in seventh right now, has hopes for a top-five points finish. He’s only 92 points out of fourth with two races left. At the same time, however, Burton is only 23 points ahead of 10th-place Matt Kenseth, with Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in between.
Kenseth, meanwhile, is 70 points ahead of both Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. at the bottom of the Chase standings. Only the top 10 drivers will go to New York for the postseason awards ceremony, and as dreary as that affair can be Kenseth said going to it each year has become a habit he’d just as soon not break.
“It’s one of those things you kind of take for granted after you go for a while,” said Kenseth, who will start 18th on Sunday. “You kind of joke about it like, ‘We’re buried 12th in points. They only take the top 10, let’s finish 11th and then we don’t have to go to New York. We’ll get an extra off weekend.’ But, of course, we don’t really mean that. It’s a huge honor to be in the top 10 and you want to move up as far as you can and finish the season on a strong note if you can do that.
“There’s definitely some pride in being in the top 10 and more than being 10th, to try to look at where we’re at in points right now and see how far we can get up there and try to finish as strong as we can.”
And while the finish to the season is on the minds of most of the teams in Nextel Cup, Friday finally marked a beginning for 2006 Indianapolis 500 and Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish Jr.
After failing to make the field in six previous tries this year, Hornish finally earned a spot in a Nextel Cup field with a lap at 131.062 mph that puts him 26th on the starting grid. He’s one of three former Indianapolis 500 winners who will be in this race on Sunday – Juan Paul Montoya will start 14th and Jacques Villeneuve will roll off 27th.
Friday was a disheartening day, however, for Michael Waltrip Racing. All three of the team’s Toyotas failed to qualify, with Waltrip and Dale Jarrett getting bumped on speed and David Reutimann failing to complete a lap because of a mechanical issue with his No. 00 car. AJ Allmendinger, John Andretti and Ward Burton also failed to make the race.