STAGE SET FOR WILD WEST SHOWDOWN

Hollywood couldn’t write a better script. Certainly the NASCAR brass couldn’t gin up a finish like this, regardless of what the conspiratorial types may think. There’s just two races and three drivers still very much in the championship discussion, and all of them can make a case for being the favorite come high noon (at least here in the West it is) at Phoenix International Speedway.

The race couldn’t come at a better time for points leader Jimmie Johnson. The champion finds himself on the ropes, having surrendered the points lead at Texas. Some would say the swapping of crews with teammate Jeff Gordon reeks of desperation, and one would be hard pressed to argue that. At the same time, PIR has been one of Johnson’s personal playgrounds, with four victories and an eye-popping 4.9 average finish.

Give points leader Denny Hamlin credit; he hasn’t blinked, in spite of a propensity for an itchy trigger finger. Seems these days, Hamlin and ordinarily quiet crew chief Mike Ford are grabbing a page from the Darrell Waltrip playbook with plenty of bravado, and a performance to back it up. He’s never won at Phoenix, but remember the 11 finished second to race winner Jimmie Johnson last fall, and he’s finished top ten in six of his ten races at the “Jewel In The Desert.” With a 33 point bulge, Hamlin has a little wiggle room now, turning the tables on Johnson.

Ignore Kevin Harvick, and you’d be a fool. Much like his predecessor- the late Dale Earnhardt (the 29 was the 3 prior to The Intimidator’s passing) – Harvick has the knack for overcoming lackluster qualifying efforts to charge through the traffic and get up front. Harvick knows Phoenix well, having raced here in his early racing career. Did I mention Harvick has two Cup wins at PIR? Oh, I guess I just did.

You’d have to go back a good ways to find a fight to the finish the likes of what we’re seeing now. Chase or no Chase, what these boys are doing is downright historic. Nobody’s blinked. Yet, at the same time, each driver has his own set of issues to overcome.

Harvick really needs a win or a bobble from the other two to have more just a lucky shot at the title going in to Homestead. Fifty-nine points isn’t bad now, but a similar deficit will require an uncharacteristic stumble by the other two in the season finale. Hamlin is in uncharted water, having gone from the hunter to the hunted. Some don’t handle leads well. What’s more, these two would sure help themselves a lot if they wouldn’t have to race likes bats out of hell to get up front.

Jimmie Johnson also finds himself in unfamiliar territory, now trailing in the points at this late juncture, a place he’s never been in his prior championship runs. No one has ever won the Chase trailing with two races to go, and right now, the champ has the third best average finish in his last five races at 5.4, trailing Hamlin’s 4.6 and Harvick’s 5.2.

You could make well the argument any one of these drivers will come out ahead on Sunday. It sets the stage for a heck of a showdown, the likes of which Arizona hasn’t seen since the days of the Earps, the Clantons and Doc Holliday.