Phoenix Just Might Cure What Ails Jimmie Johnson

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by Ryan Isley

Want to know which driver to watch for when it comes to the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway this Sunday? Look no further than Jimmie Johnson.

Most NASCAR drivers have to be happy that the craziness of the 2012 Daytona 500 is finally over and the Sprint Cup Series is moving on to Phoenix this weekend. Johnson would no doubt be on top of that list of drivers. The driver of the No.48 Lowe’s Chevrolet has to be thrilled to be getting out of Daytona for multiple reasons.

First, after waiting around all day Sunday and then all day Monday for the Daytona 500 to get started, Johnson made it to just lap two, where he was wrecked by Elliot Sadler and had his day finished early, finishing in 42nd place, earning just two points in the standings. It was the latest in a line of failures for Johnson, who hasn’t finished higher than 27th in the Daytona 500 since winning the race in 2006. In the last six chances in the Great American Race, Johnson finished 39th in 2007, 27th in 2008, 31st in 2009, 35th in 2010, 27th in 2011 and then of course 42nd this season.

As if the failure on the track was not a tough enough pill to swallow for Johnson and his team, word came out Wednesday that the team was also penalized by NASCAR for illegal parts found on the No.48 Lowe’s Chevrolet during an opening day inspection for the Daytona 500. The full penalty handed down to the No.48 Hendrick Motorsports team was a six-race suspension and $100,000 fine for crew chief Chad Knaus, a six-race suspension for car chief Ron Malec and a 25-point penalty to the team in the standings. The docked points mean that Johnson heads to Phoenix with -23 points on the season and now trails Matt Kenseth by 70 points already. The penalty would have equated to about a 100-point penalty under the old points system.

Hendrick immediately appealed the penalty, meaning Knaus will be sitting on top of the box this weekend when the team switches their focus towards the future and tries to put Daytona behind them. Johnson could not ask for a better place to try to get things back in the right direction.

In his 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Phoenix International Raceway, Johnson has four wins, 11 top-5 finishes, 13 top-10 finishes and has never finished worse than 15th. In the last 10 races at the track, Johnson has been even better than that. He has all four wins and nine top-5 finishes in his last 10 trips to Arizona.

If Johnson’s success at Phoenix isn’t enough to scare the rest of the field, he has not finished outside of the top-10 in the season’s second race in any of the last five seasons after bad Daytona 500 finishes. He finished 3rd in 2007, 2nd in 2008, 9th in 2009, 1st in 2010 and 3rd in 2011. All but the 2011 race was actually at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California before NASCAR changed the schedule last season. The second race of the 2011 season was in Phoenix.

Add to all of the above that by not being the defending champion for the first time since 2006 and now in last place in the standings, Johnson has nothing to lose by racing aggressively and he becomes quite the dangerous opponent out on the track.

All of this should add up to Johnson making his first trip of 2012 to victory lane this weekend.

For Johnson’s sake, I hope he has a better go of it this weekend than he did the last time I wrote a column about him. After this column in October, Johnson went out and wrecked the next day, pretty much ending Johnson’s 2011 Chase and stopping his streak of five straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships.

Again, sorry about that one Jimmie.

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