Phoenix Might Separate Pretender From Contender

Saturday night’s race at Phoenix International Raceway will be an excellent indicator of the relative championship hopes of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is the known quantity in this dynamic. He has finished third, first, and second in his last three races to climb from 13th to second in the standings, fairly solid proof that he and the No. 48 team are engineering their usual early-season push to the top. More worrisome to the immediate aspirations of other championship contenders, there’s the fact that last November, Johnson became the first driver in the relatively short history of Phoenix to win three straight races. A win Saturday simply restarts talk of the Johnson juggernaut.

To say that Gordon is the unknown variable and the one with something to prove is, of course, odd. The guy has won 82 races and four championships and is roundly acknowledged to be one of the best ever. Yeah, well, that was then.

And while Gordon’s now has been pretty good — he has won once, finished second twice and fourth twice and has led the standings for five weeks — it’s been quite a while since he’s delivered under these circumstances. Though he’s won once at Phoenix (in 2007), his record is nothing like Johnson’s — he finished 13th and 41st there last year. But if he wins or at least produces a solid top-five on Saturday, it won’t matter what Johnson does; Gordon will have proved that he and not his teammate is the favorite.

Ultimately, Saturday could be immaterial to either driver’s season. But in an early season a bit short on intrigue, it will certainly provide an interesting glimpse of their long-term strength.